The biggest story in tech for the past fifteen years has been the convergence of a bag full of stuff into a single, pocket-sized, take-everywhere product. From its beginnings on the hips of Wall Street types, it rapidly became the best-selling piece of consumer electronics ever — and it is not even a close race.
I mean, of course it is a success without equal. Many of us can leave our houses with scarcely more than our phone and a set of keys, and the latter is becoming optional, too.
But its Jack-of-all-trades status of course implies it is a master of none. And, as great as a smartphone is, there are still things which other devices do better. That argument was the premise for the introduction of the iPad. It is the reason why I drafted the first notes for this on my phone, but I am currently writing it on a laptop. A smartphone is by no means the best camera you can buy, for example, so it is not uncommon to see people carrying a dedicated camera even if they own a smartphone. I am one of those people.
What if there are other categories for which most people currently find a smartphone useful, but which a dedicated device could do a better job? What if the big story in tech for the next fifteen years — aside from the rise of A.I. — is an undoing of this great convergence, at least in part?
This is not entirely speculative; or, at least, not any more so than the future of tech is in general. The device Humane previewed at TED earlier this year is approximately a standalone version of Siri, for example. Whether it will be a success is a good question, and I have doubts. But some people clearly believe someone would buy one of these things for use in addition to a smartphone, if not to replace one entirely for some people.
So, this is an article of mostly guesswork. I have no confidence in this; let us not even call them “predictions”. But there seems to be something worth exploring here and, since this website has no market swaying powers, I feel totally fine with spending a few hundred words thinking more deeply about this.
Back to Humane. Its product looks like an unbundled and perhaps better personal assistant. Smart speakers are already one example of a device extricated from the confines of the smartphone world, and Humane’s product is effectively one which you can wear, having seemingly similar benefits and restrictions. You cannot watch a movie on one, but you can ask it for nearby recommendations or to translate something. It is a peek at a world seamlessly augmented by high technology.
That future is something which is apparently in the works at every giant computer company. Microsoft released a video in 2008 — you can tell it was 2008 because everything is typeset in Gotham — predicting magic translation glasses by the year 2040. Google actually released augmented reality glasses in 2012 without success. Scaled-back attempts at similar devices have been released by Snap and Meta. The latter is also reportedly working on a more capable product to the point it staked its very identity on its ability to deliver. Apple might be working on some kind of augmented reality glasses as well.
The devices we have today already allow us a taste of an augmented reality experience. It works fine, I suppose. I have used it to place furniture in my living room and try on eyeglasses. I have also used it to plunk a giant skeleton inside my house.
The devices which have been released after the smartphone seem more specialized than ever. Perhaps that is in part because nearly anything looks more specialized than a smartphone, but there are also whole categories of seemingly niche products. Headphones were barely thought of as a device before the craze for wireless earbuds; the market for advanced fitness trackers and smart watches has been booming for years. These were niche markets, yes, until they were not.
This is what got me thinking about this more deeply: these are products which do not need to do everything better all of the time; they are things which can do a lot of things better some of the time, or a handful of things better a lot of the time.
Products with an increased degree of specialization have business justifications, too, since there are more products to sell. It may be very difficult to beat the smartphone in terms of raw sales of another single product, but it is possible to get similar results in the aggregate. It seems like this would benefit tightly integrated businesses, too.
One reason the smartphone is so popular is because it has become possible to make very good phones for not very much money — partly thanks to standardization, partly thanks to components no longer needing to be cutting-edge to be very good, and partly due to exploitative labour practices. As a result, it has become possible for people across income brackets and around the world to use a smartphone. As remarkable as that may be, it is worth remembering technology is not a panacea. Smartphones will not correct the inequality we see in cities or around the world. That said, these devices have been beneficial in developing regions and for individuals of a wide range of incomes. They are the best-selling devices ever created for a reason: they connect just about everyone. People are able to make a living by selling goods through WhatsApp, and can find jobs and services locally.
It therefore seems unlikely to me for the smartphone to disappear in the near future. But, for some, perhaps it becomes increasingly optional. Perhaps the story for them is of less convergence and more specialization. That was an early vision for the Apple Watch. Maybe some of those ideas, while premature, will finally begin to come to fruition in a more meaningful sense for more of us. For what it is worth, I cannot imagine giving up my iPhone but, then again, I could not imagine how truly great a smartphone could be before I saw one.