Have mobile operating systems stalled out?

Commentary: My biggest takeaway from Google's Android M announcement was how underwhelmed I was by the new features. But that may well be the new normal for all mobile operating systems.

Jason Parker Senior Editor / Reviews - Software
Jason Parker has been at CNET for nearly 15 years. He is the senior editor in charge of iOS software and has become an expert reviewer of the software that runs on each new Apple device. He now spends most of his time covering Apple iOS releases and third-party apps.
Jason Parker
4 min read

Photo by James Martin/CNET

For a big part of the Google I/O 2015 keynote, Google showed off Android M, the next iteration of its mobile operating system. Some of the highlights include a new USB Type-C charger, better app permissions, a new Doze mode for better power management, and the advent of Android Pay.

Yawn. None of the Android announcements left me gobsmacked. While I can appreciate the redesigned photos app and new changes for Google Now, there just wasn't anything that really surprised me or got me excited.

Understand that I don't blame Google, or any lack of trying by all OS manufacturers taking baby steps toward perfection. I think the problem (if you can call it that), is that mobile OSes from both Google and Apple are so mature now, that there are no longer any glaring features missing. It also might be that the form factor of what is now the standard smartphone (roughly a 5.5 x 2.7-inch rectangle) limits innovation. What ever the reason is, it means that OS update announcements aren't going to get crazy-exciting anytime soon.

Evolutionary, not revolutionary

At the keynote, what quickly became clear was Google wasn't going to blow us away with some crazy new feature, but instead just improve on the features Android already has.

Take Google Now, for example: the system for sending you relevant contextual notifications by combing your emails, contacts, messages and GPS location. It's already useful, but the addition of Now on Tap just brings that system to the surface, letting you touch the Home button to get actionable info for what you're looking at. It will be an improvement, to be sure, but it's really more of a refinement than a completely new feature.

The new Google Photos is another example. I like the new layout, and it's really hard to complain about unlimited free storage space. But at the same time, you already had ways to manage photos, so -- like Now on Tap -- this is just another evolutionary step rather than a breakthrough for smartphones.

But this is not just about Google. The rumors we're hearing about the next iPhone operating system -- which will likely be announced June 8 at Apple's own developers conference -- are not much different. iOS 9 will allegedly get an enhanced keyboard that has extra functions in landscape mode, the shift key design will be more noticeable, and the Maps app will get transit directions (finally). Oh, and plenty of bug fixes and compatibility improvements for older devices.

These are all useful additions too, but I wouldn't call any of them ground-breaking -- just refinements for what we already have. There will likely be more features, but I expect them to be along the same "better functionality" line. In other words, it seems like we've reached the point where there is just not that much left to add to these mini computers we carry in our pockets and purses.

Seriously, what do we want?

Part of the problem is that both smartphones have enormous app stores with apps for just about everything under the sun. With literally millions of apps, you have to think the Android M and Apple iOS 9 teams probably come up with exciting ideas only to realize there's already an "app for that." And while either of the big companies can take an app's components and fold it into the next version of Android or iOS, the fact that the feature is essentially already available on the phone means I'm likely to be underwhelmed when Google or Apple announces it as something "new."

I like to dream of features like 3D holographic communication (think "Star Wars"), or projecting photos, videos, or games onto a wall from my phone, but I can admit that neither is necessary -- or even practical, for that matter. And I'd be willing to bet that Apple, Google and even you would feel the same.

Of course, those companies and others are doing exactly the sort of innovative, off-the-wall things I do get excited about -- just not necessarily with smartphones. The really cool stuff at I/O were things like Project Jacquard -- smart clothing! -- and Jump -- create a virtual reality experience from 16 GoPro cameras! Indeed, the most exciting smartphone "innovation" at I/O was the fact that Google's ultra-affordable Cardboard accessory can now turn nearly any phone into a VR headset. But even that was really just a free app paired with a DIY "case" -- not really an OS-level change to the smartphone's DNA.

To be fair, there is always the chance that a future keynote could wow us with something completely off the charts, but I'm starting to wonder. Have we reached the peak of what smartphones are supposed to do? Have all the major features already been introduced? Unless one of the smartphone companies comes up with something we never knew we wanted that completely changes the game, I think the answer to both questions is likely "yes."