By Erik Christiansen
There is an idea circulating in the tech blog world. It started approximately a year ago, but has gained wider attention this summer. It's the idea that the smartphone is dead.
"How can that be?!" - you might say. We all love our phones. It's the most useful tool I carry in my pocket. The smartphone has seen extremely rapid innovation unlike any technological device I know of. Compare the first iPhone to the 5th generation, or better yet, the first Android phone to the most recent crop. Huge advances in processing power, connectivity, apps etc. Lately, we've been in a bit of a slump.
The summer has not brought "the next big thing." The Galaxy S4 is a great example of a phone that doesn't know what it's supposed to do. Not a bad device by any means, just not as focused as the alternatives.
The truth is, smartphones meet most of our needs already, so it's a lot harder to innovate because now companies really have to examine what problems need to be solved, and what is the best way to solve them. The computer industry has experienced the same kind of slump - with pundits predicting the death of the PC throughout the 1980s, 1990s, and 2000s. Yeah right. We were all ready to go back to the old typewriter, until Apple reinvented the desktop with the "digital hub" concept and the iMac.
I'm not going back to a feature phone, and it's unlikely that wearable technology will replace the bricks in our pockets, due to space constraints and battery life - two factors that still need to be solved in phones. There is still plenty of innovation to be made in phones; it just requires a bigger investment.
- Battery technology: We just want to get a day or two out of our phones. That's all. There have been significant innovations regarding battery charging, which might make its way into phones shortly.
- Security: Mobile payments will be mainstream eventually. It's simply more convenient. However, there is a huge security risk. Biometric sensors in personal devices would make them far more secure. It's quite possible Apple will solve this problem with the fingerprint reader.
- Sensors: The Galaxy S4 has an insane amount of sensors including humidity, accelerometer, light, barometer, temperature, gyroscope, gps, and the list goes on. Once apps take advantage of these technologies we can use phones to better monitor our lives. Imagine if all your devices had these sensors. Then we could get very accurate assessments about our health and activity.
- Voice assistant: Siri, Google Now, S Voice are all examples of imperfect assistants. None are the HAL 9000 I want. The Moto X (though not the perfect phone) has shown us the utility of devices that are always listening. I would love a hands off experience, for safety reasons (while in a car or on my bike) and for work. When I need to fact check something, it would be much more efficient just to ask my phone directly - keeping me focused on whatever I'm doing.
These are just a few of the things we have to solve/implement in phones. Clearly there is a lot of life left in the smartphone. Heck, I'm still using a laptop - a relic of the 1990s - to write this column. I expect the form factor and feature set of phones to evolve for some time, and we'll look back at this period as a blip.
I think many technologists are simply too used to the period of innovation the world has just gone through. Their memories are short. We can't expect new device categories every year. It's not realistic. Rather than being spoiled brats, technologists should be praising companies for taking the time to do things right, rather than pump out lacklustre devices year after year.