Facebooker Roy Kristovski submitted this photo comparison of three cellphones to illustrate a point he was making:

“Each of these are/were arguably the most popular phones of their time, each released around 8 years apart.

“How come the advance between the first 2 are so much more than the second two. I’m only 22 so I may be bias but I feel like during the period say 2000-2007 the everyday advances we saw in technology were massive think CD walkman to iPod, VHS to DVD the difference ever year in cell phones and computers, Dial Up to broadband. In the last 8 years we have been given Wifi and Digital storage of movies/music, but I feel as tho these are just upgrades of preexisting items. So far wearable tech has failed to make an impact see google glass or apple watch…. Idk correct me if i’m wrong but compared to the first 7 or so years of the 21st century this second 7 has been pretty lacklustre in the terms of life changing tech…”

I see Roy’s dilemma, but in this case, I think he’s allowed the mere appearance of the phones to cloud his impressions of advancing technology.  Here’s how I responded:

“First, advancement doesn’t happen on a smooth timeline. Innovation happens in spurts, and that’s exactly what we’ve seen.

ipod nano“Secondly, I’d say wifi and digital music/video storage are MONSTROUS advancements over the tech of the past, and not to be sneezed at. When I can store in a millimeter of space what once took an entire library to hold on paper, vinyl or tape… that freaks the crap out of me.

“Thirdly, these photos don’t do the issue justice. While the iPhones may look pretty similar, their quality and capabilities have increased significantly in that time… from memory increases significantly above the older versions, to many more available apps and versions of apps, meaning, the things you can store and choose to do with that phone have increased a thousandfold. Whether you choose to do them is up to you… but the potential is there.

“So don’t be fooled by similar packaging: There have been crazy innovations in the last 8 years; you just won’t see them by looking at the case, they’ve all happened under the skin.

Technology can’t be judged by its external appearance.  Technology always does its most visually-distinctive changes—working out the form-factors, ergonomics, etc—first; and in the case of cellphones, it’s already done that.  But once that’s done, the real work happens… under the hood.

In fact, using a car analogy fits this perfectly, as the basic configuration of the modern automobile hasn’t changed in over 50 years; but under the skin, incredible innovation has been going on, improving engine efficiency, fuel efficiency (and, in some cases, fuel alternatives), component quality, automation assistance, safety, entertainment and performance features.  Today’s cars can play movies for the kids in the back seat, while the dashboard gives you turn-by-turn directions, plays music from your collection of a few hundred songs (or beamed from a satellite), automatically cleans your windshield when the rain starts, adjusts engine operation to maximize fuel efficiency, detects obstacles in your path and stops the car, using advanced computers to keep your brakes from locking up.  Soon, the car that hasn’t much changed its outside appearance in over 50 years will be doing the driving for you.

Consumer electronic devices have gone through the same kind of evolution in the past decade, making significant changes in the software that utterly transform the capabilities of the hardware.  The advances of the original cellphones, for example, came when the phones were combined with handheld computers, which greatly expanded their capabilities.  Once that happened, the apps available for cellphones exploded, not only in number but in features and capabilities.  And the cellphones themselves have not only added memory storage by an order of magnitude, but have improved audio and video capabilities, to the extent that you can download and play an entire motion picture on a high-quality output screen.  Then connect wirelessly to the internet to get information on that movie via IMDB, google its stars, find them on Twitter and add them to your list of following accounts, query industry insiders to find out about the expected date of the movie sequel, and add it to the calendar that you share with your friends in realtime alongside video clips of how awesome a time you’re gonna have.

cell lensYou couldn’t do most of that 8 years ago… in fact, you wouldn’t have even seen the movie to kick off the process.  And if that’s been accomplished in the last 8 years… think about what the next 8 will bring.

Just don’t expect to be able to see all that cool stuff by staring at your phone.  In 8 years, you might not even be taking it out of your pocket…