Revolutions are only relevant until the next revolution comes along. Over the past decade, the smartphone revolution has fundamentally upended daily life. Walk through any public space and you will find people of all backgrounds transfixed by pocket-sized, rectangular obelisks. These little wonder slabs magically connect us to the rest of humanity and are personal windows into the digital ghost dimension that flows beneath civilization’s surface.
This revolution has been quite a process to watch unfold—and it all happened in the relative blink of an eye. So it shouldn’t be too difficult to imagine how the next big thing could come along and upend everything just as quickly. The smartphone era turns 10 this year, but the next great form factor may be ready to take its place. Perhaps that sounds like an absurd notion? Don’t just take my word for it—look at where Big Tech is placing its bets for the future.
Rise of the Hive Mind
Ten years ago this month, Steve Jobs took the stage at Macworld to announce the iPhone. Under his second tenure at Apple, the company had already managed the twin masterstrokes of reimagining consumer hardware design and reinventing the music industry. This new undertaking, however, would prove transformative.
Despite its name, the iPhone’s chief purpose was never making iCalls—it was untethering the Internet. There were devices that called themselves smartphones before 2007 as there were mobile devices that could bring users online. But the iPhone was the first device to strike the right balance of technology and humanity to make the platform worth using.
The first-generation iPhone introduced the masses to the concept of computing everywhere. Following that breakthrough, the Internet would join people at the dinner table, while walking the dog, in line at the post office, while watching TV, while running for the presidency, and in the bathroom.
Never not be on camera or online.
If a time traveler from the mid-90s arrived in 2010, they’d find themselves in an era where no bit of knowable information—or social contact—was out of reach; the hive-intelligence was always present.
Not to get all Singularity on you, but mobile tech has represented a major step towards our inevitable melding with the digital world.
In the 10 years since the iPhone’s debut, smartphones have become fixtures of everyday life. A 2015 Pew Research study found that 86 percent of US adults owned smartphones, including a majority of adults who earned less than $30,000 annually. In fact, for 13 percent of adults in this bottom economic tier, smartphones are how they get online, as a decent midrange smartphone on a discount mobile plan is more affordable than purchasing a laptop and home Internet access.
Smartphone prices have fallen while features expand. Many phone cameras can rival DSLRs, there are devices that legitimately boast all-day battery life, and mobile processing power can match that of laptops from only a few years back. Looking forward, smartphones are beginning to flirt with UIs they weren’t original intended for, like virtual and augmented reality; and they’re even beginning to utilize advanced applications like artificial intelligence.
This is where things begin to look familiar. Just as when advancements in a few once-unrelated technologies allowed modern smartphones to come into existence in the 2000s, a new technological convergence appears to be taking shape. In fact, I would argue that the next great form factor is already here.
Time for Phone to Phone Home
Fast forward to 2017, and it feels almost quaint that we are still accessing our virtual world through palm-sized rectangles. As everything around us inches towards seamlessness (from smart locks to Amazon Go), it seems strange that we still need to physically reach into our pockets to fish out our little friends, unlock the screen, and navigate to the right app just to check our email. I hope I’m not coming off as too #FirstWorldProblem precious here, but in a world surrounded by silky smooth automation, using a smartphone to complete basic tasks is beginning to feel clunky and garish.
Smartwatches have attempted to smooth the transition between the physical and virtual worlds. But their tiny interface is a poor window to the rich virtual universe.
Personally, I want to easily control my gadgets through voice or gesture and instantly be whisked away to the virtual domain of my choosing without having to touch a phone. But I also want to have some privacy so that not every lookie-loo in gawking distance can see where I choose to spend my virtual time (if I want to catcuh up on The Bachelor during my commute, that’s my own business, not the stranger’s next to me on the subway).
Why would you need a phone, when you could do this?
As it turns out, this technology actually already exists—be it in a primordial form. Microsoft’s HoloLens projects virtual images (a.k.a. holograms) onto a faceplate in front of the user and allows them interact with them in three dimensions. So, if there’s a hologram of an animated dinosaur, the user can walk around it IRL to check it out from all angles. They can also place a virtual video screen in an arbitrary location in mid-air and and view it from different perspectives.
HoloLens allows users to construct a virtual, explorable environment or walk through a virtual world created by others. That’s an amazing new medium.
Microsoft is far from the only one attempting to break into the “mixed reality” facetech biz. The secretive (and controversial) Florida-based start-up Magic Leap has garnered significant financial backing from various Silicon Valley VCs. Likewise, Intel says untethered “Project Alloy” VR headsets will arrive by year’s end. Even Apple is rumored to be partnering with Carl Zeiss to build some kind of “smart glasses” (which are hopefully more successful than Google Glass).
I should note that these devices are by no means polished, consumer-ready products (HoloLens only has three hours of battery life, for example). But man, is it cool! After taking HoloLens for a test drive, I can imagine how Steve Jobs and company must have felt trying the multi-touch display that would underpin the iPhone UI and seeing the possibilities that lay ahead.
Anyone can pick up their own HoloLens Developers’ Edition for not-inconsiderable $3,000 price tag (but you really shouldn’t do that unless you’re a developer or happen to be overburdened by too much money). That’s an undeniably steep price, but keep in mind the original consumer-ready iPhone retailed for $499 for the 4GB model—that’s about $585 in today’s dollars, or slightly more than the current price for an unlocked (and far brawnier) 32GB iPhone 6s. The price of HoloLens or other facetech will almost certainly come down with time, just as the quality will go up.
There is ONE advantage that smartphones have over this new facetech; they don’t require people to don some bulky, Daft Punk-esque headgear, which can look somewhat ridiculous:
One of two things will have to happen for this new form factor to take off: 1) Engineers will need to figure out a way to shrink it to a size no larger than a pair of glasses, or 2) Society will have to get used to people wearing ridiculous things on their faces.
Let’s evaluate the second option first: The idea that society might bend to technology has happened before—remember the eye rolls that Bluetooth earpieces used to get? Still, the current state of face-mounted tech is particularly obstructive and they can prove problematic for anyone with hair (I’m not in that club, but I feel for y’all).
A Project Alloy version of “merged reality.”
The second scenario depends on how quick engineers can work their magic. In the show Black Mirror, computer interfaces are implanted in users’ eyeballs, thus obliterating the barrier between Man and Matrix. We’re probably still a ways off from that (though people are trying!), but shrinking this tech to something the size of a pair of glasses is a real possibility. It’s just a matter of when. There are a lot of talented engineers out there who routinely turn science fiction into reality (and the tech companies that employ them can be particularly motivated when they catch whiff of a potential financial windfall).
I don’t know if HoloLens, Magic Leap, or even Apple will be the one to successfully make the public comfortable with placing the Internet on their face. But as an observer of how technology has evolved over the past 20 years, I can’t help but notice that the trend lines all seem to be pointing in the same direction. It might be later this year; it might be a few years down the road. But I can’t imagine that the facetech era is too far away.
Once this new form factor takes on its final, consumer-ready appearance, the small magic rectangular device in your pocket will begin to look outdated mighty quick. Perhaps in the future, we will see retro-loving hipsters insist on the virtue of carrying some kind of handcrafted artisanal smartphone around (“the Internet just works better that way,” or some such nonsense), but most people will find the utility and overall future-coolness of this new platform.
The smartphone has had a good run, but even this most ubiquitous of technologies will, at some point, find itself atop the growing pile of obsolete revolutions.