“Smartphones have been so successful that it’s possible new technology won’t be able to displace them”.
The New York Times’ Shira Ovide has a point when she writes: What if smartphones are so successful and useful that they are holding back innovation?
She starts by pointing out the risk making this kind of statement:
“I may wind up looking like a 19th-century futurist who couldn’t imagine that horses would be replaced by cars.”
That’s fair enough. There could always be something waiting around the corner that isn’t obvious yet.
“But let me make the case that the phenomenon of the smartphone may never be replicated.”
Yes, it definitely looks like its was a one-off revolution. The nearest equivalent might be the way the television eventually reached into every home and every corner of the world. It took the TV decades to reach that level of penetration, phones got there in ten years.
“The challenge for any new technology is that smartphones succeeded to the point where it’s hard to imagine alternatives. In a sales boom that lasted about a decade, the devices transformed from a novelty for rich nerds to the only computer that billions of people around the world have ever owned.
Smartphones have succeeded to the point where we don’t need to pay them much notice….The allure of these devices in our lives and in technologists’ imaginations is so powerful that any new technology now has to exist almost in opposition to the smartphone.”
The next big thing
That’s right. Take the smart watch. As things stand today it looks like the most plausible contender for the next big thing.
And yet it isn’t.
Apple launched its Watch seven years ago. It wasn’t the first smart watch and it is not the only one. It is the most popular by a long way.
One estimate says around 100 million people have an Apple Watch in 2021. A bullish estimate might put the total of all watches in use at twice that. On those numbers, smart watches will never catch up with smartphones. They are unlikely to hit one-tenth the sales.
What’s more, smart watches rarely exist in isolation from phones. They are, in effect, an extension of the phone.
Virtual reality headsets and products like Google Glass are much further behind. And anyway, they offer considerably less functionality than a modern phone.
Where I take issue with Ovide is the idea that phones are holding back innovation. If anything is holding back innovation it is the tight grip a small handful of companies has on the crowning heights of the technology sector.
While there are examples of the big tech giants stifling potential competition, there are other reasons for a slow down when. it comes to hardware innovation.
We’ve reached a point where there are few new places for device makers to go. Chip makers are bumping up against quantum limits which mean transistors can’t get much smaller. Batteries are improving, but progress is glacial.
A forward thinker might have dreamed up the essence of a personal computer, smartphone or smart watch any time in the last 60 years. That Dick Tracy wristwatch screen featured in cartoons decades before the technology was possible.
Now the best people can do is dream up ways for computers and devices to move even further into the background.