App Insights Mobile Technology

Smartphones: rumours of their death are greatly exaggerated

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There’s no doubt that ‘death of the smartphone’ makes a good story – since the Stone Age, tales of birth and death have excited us far more than those of growth and stability. Now of course, hyperbole is rewarded with clicks, leaving tech journalists under pressure to draw dramatic conclusions and ignite debate.

Their reasoning appears to be twofold: a lack of game-changing innovation within the sector, contrasted with exponential growth in other emerging technologies – AR, VR, AI, and MR (Mixed Reality) for starters. The advent of one form of technology sounds the death knell for another. The story shapes itself.

Steve Jobs’ iconic unveiling of the world’s first smartphone in 2007 was a watershed moment in modern history. The steady release-by-release improvement in intelligence, display, and design? Not so much. But, as we will explore, innovation takes many forms. Often, perceived slowdowns actually mean strength, not weakness – meaning it’s far from ‘game over’ for the smartphone.

Smartphone innovation and the S-Curve

Behind the hyperbole, there is a more complex pattern at play – one that can be seen in everything from automobiles to aircraft. By examining history, we can see that smartphones are merely following a well-worn curvature in product development: the S-Curve.

In the late 19th century, the invention of cars changed the mobility of everything, with huge socioeconomic impact. 150 years on, cars have seen both grand-scale innovation and barely perceptible improvements in everything from engine automation, safety standards and inbuilt satellite navigation systems. But, crucially, they’re still cars, designed to get us from point A to point B. While the driverless revolution may be almost upon us, we’re nowhere near a car-free society.

The smartphone revolution, like the automotive one, has transformed how we communicate with one another, our friends, and the world.

Benedict Evans, Silicon Valley worker and tech blogger, reflects on how this ‘S-Curve’ of product development applies to the current state of smartphone innovation. Beyond the first flurries of excitement, products reach their own natural ceilings around the point they become embedded in our cultural landscapes. Once a device is installed in a population’s psyche as much as the smartphone is, they’re not so easily ousted.

Invisible innovation – refinement vs. revolution

Smartphone innovation is happening, but because they have already reached peak adoption levels, tech journalists have stopped shouting about it. Progress is made in everything from 5G standards and beamforming, to improvements in speed, appearance, security – such as biometric eyeball scanners – and intelligence all the time.

Alongside smartphone evolution we’ve seen the use of smartphone tech to enable other forward-thinking technologies. The rise of VR, for example, is often strongly linked to improvements in smartphone capabilities. It’s important to note that smartphone tech – which is where AR first made its mark during the Pokémon Go revolution – doesn’t always require a physical smartphone. Our app for The Lost Palace, for example, doesn’t use a screen at all.

The Lost Palace from Chomko & Rosier on Vimeo.

Naturally, headlines with a futurist vision attract more readers than developments in display and function. Added to that, tech innovators are notoriously loud and proud in their predictions, whereas innovators in the comms industry are now more concerned with adding behind-the-scenes improvements to an already ubiquitous mode of technology.

While this measured approach to innovation can appear as stagnation, it is actually a sign of a mature market standing strong, and should be celebrated as such.

Tech advancements and the death of the smartphone – the incompatibility myth

For many a tech journalist, the fact that alternative technologies are progressing at a rate of knots signals the death of the smartphone wholesale. Unfortunately, this ignores the facts. None of these technologies are mutually exclusive. Smartphone developers (ourselves included) are already making use of  AR, VR, and AI technologies within their apps. Any tech which one day replaces the smartphone will be a direct evolution from what currently exists.

A smartphone is not the sum of its parts, or the functionality of its tech. It’s an objet d’art, a revered personal device, a canvas upon which individuals can layer as much or as little information as they like.

If and when the smartphone does eventually die, then it will surely signal the end of tethered devices in general, and the beginning of a world in which the internet is embedded in our beings rather than carried in our pockets. We happen to think the world isn’t quite ready for that level of futurism – just yet.

We’re entering an exciting new frontier certainly, but the beginning of the end? Not any time soon.

The death of the smartphone has been greatly exaggerated: the truth, as ever, is far more nuanced. In a time where technologies are blurring, intelligence is king and collaboration is queen, the future of the smartphone is multifaceted, complex, and far from over.

One new future horizon for smartphones and devices is represented by the Internet of Things. Read our blog pieces on the IoT and healthcare, hospitality, and retail.