If a year ago, you had told us that BlackBerry would out-innovate Apple, Nokia, Samsung and Sony, we would have patted you kindly on the shoulder and recommended you see a tech shrink. As we come to the end of the 2012-13 financial year, however, that seemingly outrageous theory seems to have come true. At a time when most of the smartphone biggies have shown a penchant for sitting on their laurels in terms of innovation, the company once known as RIM, is perhaps the only one to have dared to do something outstandingly different. The only other smartphone major who has shown an inclination to toe the same path is HTC, whose One is cut from a different cloth – in terms of design and software – from its predecessors.

Dull Flagships so far

For those who think I am being a tad pessimistic, let’s cast our eyes at the flagships that that the biggies have trotted out of late. Apple’s iPhone 5 has sold millions and is a sight for sore eyes, but in terms of hardware and software, it was not exactly a quantum leap above the iPhone 4S, notwithstanding the slightly larger taller display. Apple’s great rival, Samsung had a chance to cash in with the Galaxy S4 but although we have not yet seen the handset, all evidence overwhelmingly seems to suggest a more muscular Galaxy S3 in hardware terms rather than a break from the Galaxy S routine. The company’s phablet Note 2 was also pretty much the original Note with better specs. Sony’s Xperia Z did feature a design switch and water-proofiness, but again did not exactly make the world sit up and take notice. And while Nokia went right ahead and called the Lumia 920 an innovative handset, most of the innovation was restricted to the camera, a field in which ironically the Finnish company itself had set a new benchmark with the 808 PureView. LG weighed in with the Optimus G, which had a nice back panel, but again was mainly a hardware update from the Optimus 4X.

Now compare all that with what HTC and BlackBerry brought to the table with the One and Z10 respectively – significant changes in both design and software – and you can see why we think that the smartphone leaders have kind of dropped the innovative ball over the past dozen or so months. Both the One and Z10 do what their distinguished adversaries do not – they allow you to use a phone in a rather different way from the past. In our book, that is innovation. Now slay us if you will, but Messrs Apple, Samsung, Nokia and Sony have not REALLY made us do that in the recent past.

Chance for Google to grab the eyeballs away from Samsung

google-nexus

All of which not only leaves the door open for both BlackBerry and HTC to make a splash, but more significantly (as per us at least), provides Google with an opportunity to really make heads turn with the next Nexus device which is supposed to be heading our way in a couple of months. Let’s face it, the biggest attraction of the Nexus range so far has been its ability to be first in line for Android updates. But when it comes to innovation, Samsung has been regularly hogging the Android spotlight – with its displays, the S-Pen, and the like. This year, Google has a chance to change that, and truly reinstate the Nexus not just as the must-have flagship Android device, but even also emerge as perhaps the best phone of them all.

Of course, all this is easier said than done. But then Google is after all the boss of Android and has at its disposal the ability to tweak the OS to really get more out of a device, and it could use all those folk it got from Motorola to help out on the hardware and design side, couldn’t it? A clamshell with notifications on the external display and Android on the inside? A high-powered, low cost device a la the Nexus 7? We would not bet on Google not pulling it off, given its track record in the innovation field. We just hope that somewhere in the Googleplex, folks realize that this could be the year of the Nexus. The competition is unlikely to be as static in the coming months and the next fleet of its flagships is a distance away.

Carpe diem, Google?

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Associate Editor

Nimish Dubey has been writing for more than a decade now (well, Windows 3.1 was around and Apple was on the verge of being finished when he started). He has been published in a number of publications including The Times of India, Mint, The Economic Times, Mid-Day and Femina on subjects that vary from tech write -ups to book reviews to music album round ups. He managed to interview Michael Schumacher once and write two books for young adults along the way.