Apps Give Old Gadgets New Set of Capabilities

Sunday, October 06, 2013
You can already talk to your phone.

You can ask it to locate and direct you to your favorite restaurant.

Soon enough — for some it’s already happening — you won’t need to ask.

Your phone will know your favorite restaurant. It will, unprompted, suggest another you’re likely to enjoy, predict the size of your meal tab and point you, turn-by-turn, to the hostess’ station.

Not your next phone. The one you already have.

Gadgets have been improving, post-purchase, for a while. But the updates have typically been incremental. Now, technology experts say, the speed of smarter software is lapping better hardware, so much so that the days of regularly replacing your smartphone might be coming to an end. Instead, you’ll see the smarts in the phone that you already carry, and the TV, tablet, tech of all sorts, grow steadily savvier.

New and improved is moving toward old and improved.

And, quite casually, you’re making them better. The more you use many applications, the better they get at responding to your needs. Data you share with the app maker, which poses a potential privacy leak, is often blended with myriad other users to make them better.

Meantime, developers constantly craft entirely new apps. Thousands are released daily.

“The ways we use the devices are in some ways more innovative than the devices themselves,” Consumer Reports electronics editor Paul Reynolds said. “There’s an app for everything. They really do make a significant difference in the way you live. A lot of that is almost independent of the device you use it on.”

The wizardry of gadget design was bound to plateau. After you create a pocket-sized touch screen that plugs wirelessly into the Internet, plays music, uses satellites for a better compass and talks to you, well, what’s left for the encore? Apple released some new iPhones last month, including one with fingerprint-based security, and saw its stock drop afterward.

In fact, some hardware breakthroughs have proven duds.

High definition led to ultra-high definition. People can buy 3-D TVs, but since they don’t seem motivated to put on dorky glasses in their living rooms, that hasn’t taken off the way industry types hoped. Smartphones with 3-D screens that required no special glasses came out a few years ago. Consumers yawned, then passed.

“So that hasn’t been a big breakthrough,” Reynolds said, “even though it’s technological innovation.”

Instead, like for your phone, applications are growing that work with your (relatively new) television — more elegantly streaming videos over Internet connections or making your channel guide more intuitive and informative.

The advent of smartphones and electronic tablets initially led to huge developments, but innovations have now become more incremental.

Screens have gotten bigger, displays made sharper by cramming in ever more pixels. Engineers design phones with lighter and thinner profiles. But few new hardware frontiers remain to be conquered.

The game is no longer about having the newest, skinniest phone. It’s about what you can do with it. And that’s the market developers want to crack.

Software now plays a much bigger role in the experience people have with their phones, said Erica Cohen, a spokeswoman for Kansas City-based app maker OneLouder.

“The landscape is changing really fast,” she said. “Companies are realizing how much money is on the software end.”

It’s also a question of logistics. It can take cell carriers easily nine months to introduce a new phone - getting the manufacturer’s specifications to work with the phone company’s technology, tweaking the software to fit a carrier’s desires, adjusting the device to work for Sprint, for Verizon, for AT&T and for T-Mobile.

That requires heavy investments by manufacturers and carriers - passed on to consumers in largely hidden subsidies baked into their monthly phone bills. If the new handset doesn’t amaze enough, the payoff might not be worth the time and financial risk.

“Once you decide what a phone is going to be, it’s nine to 12 months to get that in market,” said Sprint’s vice president of product platforms, Kevin McGinnis. “You have to line up manufacturing, get parts.”

Software innovations, by comparison, are nearly constant. Companies like Sprint can use the window between hardware upgrades to help people get more out of the phones they already have.

New app developers now have an easier time entering the tech market because creating an app doesn’t require jumping over the same hurdles as manufacturing hardware. The raw materials, after all, are brainpower. The supply chain relies on the Internet, not Chinese manufacturers or companies extracting rare minerals in developing countries.

Kirk Hasenzahl, a co-founder and president of Kansas City app creation software maker RareWire, compared today’s markets to the early days of the Internet, when companies first started exploring the possibilities of having their own websites.

“We’re knee-deep in the middle of same thing happening,” he said. “The same powerful computer that came with the Internet boom of the early ‘90s, now it’s in your pocket. So it’s created this whole new opportunity to develop software.”

When Apple first launched the iPhone in 2007, competitors scrambled to catch up. Now that most smartphones share many cosmetic characteristics, each succeeding wave becomes harder for most consumers to appreciate.

Yet those increasingly faster computing and connection speeds will open up new possibilities for people with smartphones. Andy Lynn, the CEO of Kansas City mobile app maker Kickanotch, predicts the next few years will see as dramatic a change as the tech landscape experienced when people first switched to high-speed Internet. And in Kansas City, Google Inc.’s new ultra-fast Internet service isn’t yet a life changer because special applications reliant on mega-bandwidth have yet to emerge. Apps geared to capitalize on the whip-fast speeds will take hold only after large numbers of people live in homes wired to a much speedier Internet.

“Google Fiber, right now, it hasn’t changed everything,” Lynn said. “The next year or two, we’ll have a whole other wave of innovation.”

With so many upcoming developments in software, people will likely start discovering new uses for their aging devices - many that didn’t exist when they first bought their gadgets. Many analysts see those shifts hinged to the location-based capabilities of their gadgets, and how an explosion of apps might put those beacon properties to work.

You won’t need to run a search for gas stations near you, for example. Reynolds predicts phones will have programs that automatically generate information and advertising based on where you are at any given moment.

“Now, it’s relatively passive,” Reynolds said. “We say, ‘Hey, I want to find the closest Italian restaurant.’ We’ll see a lot more things offer to tell you, wherever you are, ‘Hey, there’s all this stuff around you.’ “

Meantime, TV viewing has moved away from watching live shows, with sports being the great exception. Many televisions come loaded with apps from companies like Netflix, Hulu or Vudu. Hasenzahl thinks the market will soon open up, making room for developers like RareWire and causing a feeding frenzy similar to what the mobile apps market has seen.

It might soon be that you can shop at an app store on your computer, and find tools and games created by small developers, much like you can on your phone.

“It’s possible to be innovative in software without having to own factories and having a retail chain, a retail stream to put things into,” Reynolds said. “Being able to create apps and sell them is a lot more scalable for a lot more people than to figure out manufacturing and getting it into stores.”