Why smartphones can be great
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I’m going to pose a deliberately provocative question: What if smartphones are so successful and useful that they are stifling innovation?
Technologists are now imagining what the next big thing could be. But nothing can ever be the first and perhaps the last mass market and globally transformative computer like a smartphone.
I look like a 19th century futurist who couldn’t have imagined that horses would be replaced by cars. But let me make the case that the smartphone phenomenon can never be replicated.
First, when people in technology envision the future, they implicitly bet that smartphones as the center of our digital lives will be displaced by things that are less obvious – not slabs that keep us from our world. But technologies that are almost indistinguishable from the air we breathe.
Virtual reality goggles are a huge annoyance now, but the bet is that technology like VR or computers that can “learn” like people will eventually blur the line between online and real life and human and computer to the point of erasing. That’s the vision behind the “metaverse,” a broader vision that virtual human interaction will be just as complex as the real thing.
Maybe you’re thinking that more immersive and human-ish technologies sound interesting, or maybe they sound like Cook’s alluring dreams. (Or maybe a little bit of both.) Either way, technologists have to prove to us that the future they envision is more compelling and useful than the digital life we already have in our pockets. Thanks for the supercomputer.
The challenge for any new technology is that smartphones reach the point where alternatives are hard to imagine. In a sales boom that lasted nearly a decade, the device transformed from a novelty to a one-off computer for wealthy nerds owned by billions of people around the world. Smartphones have become successful to such an extent that we do not need to give them much notice. (Yes, that includes the incrementally updated iPhone models that Apple talked about on Tuesday.)
The allure of these devices in our lives and in the imaginations of technologists is so powerful that any new technology now exists as opposed to a smartphone.
When my colleague Mike Isaacs tried out Facebook’s new model of glasses that could snap photos with a single tap on the temple, a company executive told him: “Would it be better than taking out your phone and holding it in front of your face? Isn’t better. Every time you want to capture a moment?”
I understand the executive point. It’s true that devices like the Apple Watch, Facebook’s Glasses and Snap’s Spectacles are smart about making smartphone features less intrusive. Companies including Facebook, Snap and Apple are also working on eyewear – like the failed Google Glass – aimed at linking digital information such as what we see around us.
The commentary also suggests that any new consumer technology will have to answer the inevitable questions: why should I buy another gadget to take photos, flip through cycling instructions, or play music when I’m at that point. Can I do most of the work with the smartphone I already have in my pocket? Do I need to be in the metaverse when I have the same experience in my phone’s rectangular screen?
Smartphones are unlikely to be the apotheosis of technology, and I look forward to seeing the development of technologies that want to move away from them. But at least for now, and probably forever, most of the technologies for our daily lives complement our phones rather than replace them. These tiny computers can be of so much use that there will never be a revolution after the smartphone.
Before we leave …
Should you buy a new phone now? In a recent column, my colleague Brian X. Chen sifted through the questions if you’re thinking about swapping out your smartphone for a newer model: Can you repair what bothers you rather than replace your phone? Can you still get software updates with current models? How will a new phone change your life?
We wanted flying cars and we found an $850 robot vacuum that spins around Doggy Do: To create the latest Roomba, the company built “more than 100 physical models of pet droppings, and trained algorithms on more than a million images to get the device to avoid the crap,” writes the Washington Post. Plus, robots collect a lot of data from inside your home. (The Roomba is still confused by the black striped carpet, Although.)
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