The death of the smartphone is further away than you think. And there is no 'Next Big Thing'
The smartphone represents the latest major platform shift, and it may also be the last one. We will still need the smartphone's functionality, and no wearable device looks like offering a single viable replacement. Pacific Crest's Ben Wilson suggests looking for a range of AI-based devices instead
The smartphone is just another iteration of the everyday experience that computers have been getting smaller and smaller for the past 60 years. We've already moved from mainframes, minicomputers, workstations, personal computers, laptops, and handhelds to today's smartphones. It's natural to assume that the Next Big Thing will be an even smaller thing, such as a smartwatch or smart glasses. I've done it myself.
But there's no evidence that this will happen, and the odds are against it, at least in the foreseeable future. Indeed, the idea that our computing devices must always keeping getting smaller has already been contradicted. There was a time when people boasted about how small their phone was, but over the past decade, they have been getting larger.
Not everybody wants a 6-inch or larger screen, but it's a good bet that the smartphone you use today has a bigger screen than the one you used four or five years ago. Competition has focused on making phones thinner, not smaller.
There are good reasons for this. You can do more useful things when you can see more stuff on the screen. Pictures and movies look a lot better, too.
The advantages of big screens become obvious when you are forced to use the tiny screen on a smartwatch. Even if it offered perfect speech recognition, you'd still struggle to do things as efficiently as you can on a phablet. Worse, you can't pack enough processing power and memory into a smartwatch to make it perform like a smartphone. The only way smartwatches and fitness bands make sense is when they are used as adjuncts to smartphones, not as their replacememts.
Smart glasses have similar problems, though they have more ways to solve them. The problems with smart glasses still include size, weight and power, but they have added social concerns, as the brief life of Google's Glass demonstrated.
Earlier this month, Ben Wilson, an analyst who covers emerging technologies for Pacific Crest, wrote a private research note called "There Is No 'Next Smartphone'". He described the smartphone revolution as "a singular event in compute platform history that is unlikely to repeat." The huge shift that we have seen over the past decade simply isn't going to happen again.
I asked Wilson about a potential shift to smartwatches or some other wearable. He replied: "It would certainly be folly to propose that compute interfaces won't evolve, and wearables of various flavors seem almost certain to increase their share of future usage patterns. But I do think we're unlikely to see another wholesale platform shift like that of PC-to-smartphone in any reasonable timeframe. What's more likely is a move to several fragmented platforms that lever artificial intelligence to demand user attention only when necessary, letting us interact with compute in a more passive fashion."
In his paper, he calls this "AI-Driven Ambient Compute".
When we're using a smartphone, it monopolizes our attention. However, AI enables us to do some of those things more easily, without taking up all of our attention. Wilson mentions the Amazon Echo as an example. You could always fumble with a smartphone app to play music or perform some simple task, but it's quicker and easier just to ask Alexa to do it.
Another example would be using AI to perform tasks inside messaging services, rather than run multiple apps.
The smartphone doesn't go away, you just spend less time looking at its screen. Indeed, I think smartwatches and fitness bands are already part of this trend. My Microsoft Band 2 tells me who is calling before my smartphone rings, so I can ignore it if I want to. I can also read things like SMS text messages without getting my phone out.
And as Wilson points out, the move to less intensive but narrower interactions is the exact opposite of fully-immersive virtual reality (VR) systems.
Happily for me, the idea of adding new devices is yet another illustration of the "Darwinian speciation" that I've been writing about since the 1980s.
Let's take clocks as an example. They used to be hugely expensive and relatively rare: if you wanted to know the time, you checked the town hall clock, or a church or, later, a station clock. Eventually homes had their own clocks, and then, as mechanisms became smaller and cheaper, personal clocks arrived with fob watches and wristwatches. Today, everyone has multiple clocks, and wristwatches are a fashion item. There are clocks on your smartphone and PC, your radio, your microwave oven, and many other devices. There are lots of different "species" of clocks filling different niches, and you don't even know how many you own.
Computers have made a similar progression, and as computing has become cheaper, more and more gadgets have started to compute. In the beginning, only governments and giant corporations had mainframes, but in 1977, we started to move into the "one computer per home" era. (Your Apple II was like a grandfather clock.) Today, speciation means most of us have multiple computing devices in different form factors. These include PCs, laptops, tablets, e-readers, smartphones, games consoles, set-top boxes, NAS servers and so on. Our cars, TV sets and other devices are being computerised as well.
Given the history, even more species should keep appearing. Smartwatches, VR/AR headsets, AI-based speakers etc are exactly that.
It is, of course, true that some form factors have more or less disappeared. Most of the minicomputer industry has evaporated (DEC, Data General, Prime, Wang etc), along with the workstation industry (Sun, Apollo, SGI etc), home/games computers (Acorn, Atari, Commodore, Sinclair etc), and handhelds (Palm, Psion, lots of PocketPCs). However, we still do all the same things: we just do them with different devices. Server farms are the new mainframes while smartphones are the new iPaqs and iPods.
The smartphone isn't dead, and it isn't going away, because we're going to keep doing the things we do with smartphones. The platform won't die as long as there's a need for its functionality, so I suspect you're going to need a smartphone for a long time to come.