I doubt there have been many light-hearted moments in court during the current legal spat between Apple and Samsung over tablet designs, but the day the latter accused the former of plagiarising Stanley Kubrick probably prompted a snigger or two.

Faced with the charge that it had “slavishly” copied Apple’s iPad for its own tablet line, the South Korean vendor countered that the idea for the pioneering device had in fact been around for ages – and could be seen in Kubrick’s sci-fi classic 2001: A Space Odyssey, a movie made way back in 1968.

The tablet computer is just one concept said to have been prophesied by the film; others include in-flight movie screens, Skype-like videophones, chess-playing computers, voice recognition and remote health monitoring. It remains to be seen however if Apple’s Siri can replicate the artificial intelligence of HAL, 2001’s rogue on-board computer. HAL (“born” in 1992) was nine years into service when it took the decision to kill-off the crew of Discovery One; Siri is not a yet a year old so clearly has a lot of heuristic learning left to do – but it can’t be long before it works out that destroying your iPhone is a better use of its time than finding you a decent restaurant in Soho.

There is another parallel between Apple and 2001 that is especially pertinent this week as we mark the five-year anniversary of the launch of the first iPhone. And that’s the mysterious ‘black slab’ – or monolith – that pops up in the film every million years or so to trigger a huge leap forward in human evolution.

Apple presented its own ‘black slab’ on 29 June 2007 and while this event didn’t lead to herbivorous primitive man taking up arms and slaughtering prey, its subsequent impact on the evolution of the handset market has been just as seismic. Just ask Nokia, which five years ago had a market share nudging 40 percent and now has a market valuation on a par with the days when it used to make wellies.

Today, virtually every smartphone is a variation on the iPhone’s black slab design. Compared to the earlier era of flip-phones, sliders, clamshells et al, the lack of hardware innovation in handset form factor over the last five years has been staggering. Couple this with the fact that virtually all Apple’s rivals run the same software (Android), it has been nigh on impossible for a handset vendor to stand out from the crowd. Where once the brand stamped on your handset was a proud indicator of your status and style, the handset vendors now risk having all the brand appeal of the company that makes the beige box that your PC sits in.

And yet the smartphone market is not yet commoditised. On the contrary, it is one of the largest and fastest-growing consumer electronics segments in the world; smartphones currently account for only about one in six of the world’s mobile devices, suggesting there is plenty of room for growth and innovation.

To date that innovation has mainly occurred in the low-end, making ‘black slabs’ cheap enough to open up emerging markets – a key factor underpinning the rise of Chinese smartphone-makers such as Huawei and ZTE. But competing at this end of the market is cut-throat and will only exacerbate the current situation that is seeing Apple and Samsung gobble up the vast majority of industry profits.

One emerging trend is for the big name mobile software players to go it alone, cutting out the vendors altogether in order to fully integrate the software and hardware, mimicking the concept at the heart of the Apple experience. This has prompted both Google and Microsoft to return to branded devices in recent weeks, despite neither having a particularly good track record in hardware.

But not every online player has the capability or inclination to build their own device and this presents an opportunity for smartphone-makers to make themselves relevant again. By closely partnering with the so-called over-the-top (OTT) players, struggling vendors may be able to carve out a lucrative niche by building, say, a highly-optimised Facebook or Twitter phone. It would certainly set them apart from Apple, which is not likely to share a stage with anyone else anytime soon.

The head of HTC China, Ray Yam, hinted at this way forward during his keynote at the Mobile Asia Expo last week. He outlined a vision for a “new kind of ecosystem” that could sit between the ‘closed’ model of Apple and the ‘open’ model deployed on platforms such as Android. HTC has apparently already had some success deeply integrating China’s Twitter-like Weibo service on its latest range of smartphones in the country, and he called for rival vendors to look at similar strategies.

One thing’s for sure, five years on from the iPhone it’s time for device makers to make a clean break from the past. Perhaps then their future will be less of an Orwellian dystopia and more like a sci-fi movie.

Matt Ablott
The editorial views expressed in this article are solely those of the author(s) and will not necessarily reflect the views of the GSMA, its Members or Associate Members