The death of the smartphone is closer than you think. Here's what comes next

Every technology rises, then falls: soon it will be the turn of the smartphone. But what will replace it?
Written by Steve Ranger, Global News Director

The arrival of the original iPhone back in 2007 heralded a revolution in how we use computing power, transforming it from something that sat on a desk in a PC that got used nine-to-five, to something that we carried in our pockets and accessed all the time.

And now, after almost a decade of furious change, the smartphone is at the height of its powers. It is our constant digital companion, having absorbed the capabilities of the PC, camera, TV, sat-nav, and more along the way.

But -- to misquote -- the screen that shines twice as bright, shines half as long. And the smartphone has shone so very, very brightly.

Smartphone innovation is grinding to a halt. There's just not that much more to stuff into a handset, which means that adding a curve to the screen is now considered the state of the art. Our smartphones are over-filled with clever features that most of us don't even know exist, and certainly have never used. In many countries the market is saturated.

The smartphone has taken ten years to get from its first version to near complete.

So what comes next?

For a while it looked like wearables would be the next big thing, but it is proving just too hard to fit enough processing power and battery life into something like a smartwatch to make it a viable alternative to a phone. And, even if those two problems can be overcome, the screen is never going to be big enough on any wearable for it to be our primary connection to the digital world.

That leaves augmented and virtual reality as the prime candidate.

I've tried out both and they already are jaw-dropping, stunning technologies that most of the world continues to cheerfully ignore.

I think that will change, and that today's smartphones already contain the seeds of their own demise.

Smartphones like Samsung's Galaxy S8 (and almost certainly the next iPhone too) can already function as VR viewers when connected to headsets.

I don't think this alone will create much of a breakthrough in terms of VR usage, although it will at least give consumers an idea of what is to come.

My best guess is that in the medium term, once the idea of AR/VR is more popular, smartglasses will eventually make a comeback. Lots of things count against smartglasses -- the 'glasshole' effect has already been well documented, for example. And many people won't like wearing glasses because of the barrier that they can create (especially when someone is reading something on the lens of their glasses rather than paying attention to a conversation).

But I just don't see a next evolution of personal technology that doesn't involved some sort of overlay on our vision.

Smartglasses will in turn be a stepping stone to smart contact lenses or even the mind-reading tech that Facebook announced last week it is working on (Elon Musk has talked about something similar too).

The smartphone won't die out entirely, of course. Old technologies don't die off, they just find their niche and fossilize.

The closest model we have is the PC: rapid adoption to saturation level, then stagnation for a long time followed by a late burst of innovation before settling into a comfortable niche. Over the next five to 10 years the smartphone will do the same. People will be using smarphones for decades, just like some people still use pagers. But already Silicon Valley is looking past smartphones.

Here's the problem. All of these future technologies like VR, and certainly the idea of using sensors to read thoughts, throw up huge questions around privacy, and around the appropriate use of technology and its impact on society.

Those questions have already arisen in the smartphone age, like how appropriate is it to be tracked wherever we go? And what does it mean for society if we spend more time interacting with our phones than we do with each other?

However, as smartglasses or mind-reading technology make our relationship with technology even more intimate and difficult to navigate, we may look back on the complications of the smartphone era with something resembling nostalgia.

Agree? Disagree? Let me know in the comments below.


The Monday Morning Opener is our opening salvo for the week in tech. Since we run a global site, this editorial publishes on Monday at 8:00am AEST in Sydney, Australia, which is 6:00pm Eastern Time on Sunday in the US. It is written by a member of ZDNet's global editorial board, which is comprised of our lead editors across Asia, Australia, Europe, and the US.

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