I've been watching videos and reading articles about all the new phones being announced at Mobile World Congress this week. I've noticed many of the companies who've been struggling to compete with Apple & Samsung are now taking wild swings to differentiate their phones. Most of their ideas seem unlikely to work though.
It got me thinking if it's possible to innovate when the sole motivation is to be different. These companies are all trying to find something that can get consumers to choose their devices instead. They're trying to include more cameras, vein authentication (yes, you read that right), different shapes, and unique use cases. While cool, many of these ideas offer no significant advantage to existing solutions. But they're included anyway because they need something to hopefully sell their phones.
It's a tough position to be stuck in. You either compete on price, brand recognition, or innovation. Companies like OnePlus have carved a niche by having really low prices compared to phones in their range. Google has the brand recognition to create their own phones and attract enthusiasts. No one has really innovated their way into the Apple/Samsung dominance though.
Smartphones seem like they've reached a plateau. They've all converged on similar designs, specs, and functionality. There aren't many problems left to solve in the current form of smartphones. So the "innovations" companies do try are usually solutions for problems that don't exist.
It's the same issue that makers and startups need to be aware of. What problem are you solving? Is it a real problem and will people care that you've solved it? That's what separates innovation from cool gimmicks.