The always there, always on smartphone has become our core computing device. Benedict Evans from Andreessen Horowitz described it succinctly; “Smartphones are the sun and everything else now orbits around it.” I would identify the tipping point as June 2010, the launch of the iPhone 4. The power of that phone and the other devices that followed was greater than a Cray 2 Supercomputer from the 1980s. The machine cost the equivalent of $32 million and filled a room. Fast forward 20 years, and when users have a supercomputer in their pocket, everything changes. Before 2010, the most powerful consumer device was generally the one on the office desk. With the advent of high-power mobile computing it was people, not businesses, that took control. Now we can search the web, download apps, connect on social media, or take pictures of our dinner anywhere and at anytime we like.
Where do we go after mobile? I would suggest that the next big thing is … mobile, still. There’s been plenty over debate on how new devices might replace smartphones. It’s been suggested that the Internet of Things (IoT), such as wearables and contected devices might the next thing after mobile. I’m less convinced. Consider how we use the IoT. Whether it’s a smartwatch, a Fitbit or a Nest, they still need a mobile device to drive them. Smartphones are typically used to provide input and output information in audio or visual formats. These emerging technologies are essentially satellite devices to a core mobile computer. IoT devices enhance the experience, but I would suggest our phones will remain largely the same for now. Sure, phones are going to get faster, the screens will be brighter and maybe bigger, and the camera will get better (but battery life will still be poor). Fundamentally, though, mobile devices will not change significantly.
A development that I find interesting are voice controlled intelligent assistants. Amazon’s Echo has caught people’s imagination, Google Home was launched with much interest and there’s been talk that Apple will have a similar offering soon. These devices are essentially speakers with ever-listening microphones (scary) that use cloud-based artificial intelligence. There’s even an attempt in Japan to make them into a virtual girlfriend. Potential love interest aside, are these the next big thing after mobile? Probably not. Whilst they are proving popular right now, I would argue they are little more than a fancy egg timer (a report suggested this was the most used function of the Echo). These speakers are stop-gap technologies that are waiting for the likes of Siri, on mobile devices, to catch up. With better speakers on phones, the Echo will be redundant.
Some commentators are hoping that mixed realities, such as virtual or augmented reality are the logical next step for devices. Will our phone be replaced by a pair of glasses? Benedict Evans, in a recent article, raised a number of challenges that augmented glasses will need to address before they become mass market. AR and VR are interesting technologies, but as I’ve previously blogged, I believe they have specific uses that makes them niche devices.
Right now, there’s nothing that replaces the computing power and audio-visual interface that a mobile phone has. It leads me to one conclusion, mobile devices will only be replaced when we no longer need that interface, and computing is embedded in people. Yup, cyborgs. Elon Musk has stated that if we want to beat the robots we need to become part of them. He spoke about “neuroprosthetics”, which would tap into the neural activity to communicate complex ideas telepathically. Once you can do that, the mobile interface becomes less necessary. The Space X/Tesla Boss is not the only person thinking about embeded computing as a future device. In Sweden a company is offering employees the option of a rice-grain sized implant, instead of an ID card. More ambitiously, Cyborg Nest has developed an implant called North Sense that acts as a compass and direction finder.
It is conceivable that technologically enhanced bodies will become the core computing devices, replacing mobile phones. That will move us into a world in which the distinction between on and offline will all but disappear. A few technology outliers, such as Neil Harbisson are already embracing the idea of cyborgs. Understandably, most of us are worried or even repelled by the idea. Yet Neil Harbisson uses his implant to address his colour blindness. And what if computer implants could improve the lives of people suffering from a stroke or dealing with dementia? The cyborg question raises many ethical and philosophical issues that society hasn’t addressed yet. Maybe the concept of cyborgs isn’t that far fetched afterall. We are already attached to our smartphones. They are right next to us all of the time, and we are utterly reliant on them for communications and information. Maybe we have already become cyborgs by proxy?