Banal + Smartphone = New

A blog about business and economics.
Jan. 3 2012 3:59 PM

Banal + Smartphone = New

At least one Felix Salmon reader is mighty cranky about Uber, the smartphone-based livery cab service:

It always surprises me how easy it is to wrap an existing product in a smartphone and persuade young people that it’s something new. Manhattan bankers and lawyers have been taking black cars home from those perilous downtown dinners for decades, a necessity since the city has fewer yellow cabs today than in 1937 and important men in suits can’t ride the subway after 8:00. I guess the current batch of clueless nouveau riche yuppies was terrified by the prospect of calling for a car and is very excited that they can now text for one.
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I think that's basically right, a lot of what passes for innovation today is basically taking ideas that have been around a while and turning them into smartphone aps. But it misses the boat in fundamental ways. This is how powerful new technologies shake out. Smartphones start as being cool new gadgets that are primarily important because they create a market for themselves. That follows in the footsteps of the walkman, the discman, the MP3 player, the digital watch and so forth as little portable gizmos. It starts to really make a difference precisely when you're not really using the aps to do "something new." Instead, you're tweaking the way longstanding things have been done for a while. After all, human life has a limited bandwidth for doing "something new." What people really need are new things that let us do the same old stuff slightly better, raising demand for long-existing services and raising productivity in a wide array of industries. I expect we'll see a lot more wrapping of existing products in smartphones, integrating them with GPS and other basic smartphone technologies, and then unveiling them in slightly transformed slightly more useful slightly better guises. You can roll your eyes if you like, but it's what progress looks like.

Matthew Yglesias is the executive editor of Vox and author of The Rent Is Too Damn High.

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