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Computing’s future? It’s in your pocket

TechCrunch TechCrunch 11/04/2016 Natasha Lomas

Technology’s neverending story has always, apparently, been the quest for The Next Big Thing. Whether that thing is something entirely new and transformative — unimaginable except within the fantastical confines of the sci-fi genre, say. Or just a far faster/more powerful iteration of the rough-round-the-edges gizmo sitting on your desk today — one which delivers a bona fide step change in performance truly worthy of the moniker ‘next generation’.

But terms like ‘next generation’ are threadbare with overuse. It’s become a meaningless marketing label, along with bedfellows such as ‘seamless’, ‘revolutionary’ and — all too often — ‘disruptive’. The truth about computing technology is it’s in a far quieter and more iterative phase of evolution, because, well, the core animal has become so sleek and capable. There’s no great engineering gap in need of fixing. With the possible exception of battery life.

There has always been an inherent restlessness to tech. And that built-in itch to turn the page appears impossible for the industry to shake — unsurprisingly so, given business models were bound so tightly to upgrade cycles for so many years. But what if the modern smartphone is, well, as good as it gets for now? The pinnacle — at least for the foreseeable future — of consumer electronics computing achievements. For the next five, even 10 years or more. Until something far weirder comes along (hello ingestables?).

What if the connected screen in your pocket is the computing platform with the greatest reach and staying power? Easily out performing the most powerful VR rig; more utilitarian than a drawer-load of wearables will ever be; and trivially expandable to meet the user’s personal needs and tastes — by linking to whatever custom array of add-ons they choose, whether that’s fancy connected hardware (drones, geiger counters, ‘smart’ jewelry… ) or tapping into the vast wealth of extras delivered via software bolt-ons (apps, notifications, chatbots… ), to truly personalize that ‘boring old’ mobile experience.

Frankly I have never understood arguments claiming the mobile industry lacks innovation. That’s squarely missing the point. If you think phones are boring, well, chances are you’re not thinking creatively enough about what you can do with the device in your pocket.

Sure there will be improvements. Camera enhancements to deliver crisper photos, given the perennial photogenic obsession of the social web. Tweaks to UX to follow fashions and refresh designs. The forlorn hope of better battery life… Hopefully there will also be improvements to mobile device security and privacy to lock more user data away from prying eyes, via the rollout of robust end-to-end encryption (albeit progress there might depend on the prevailing political winds… ).

Enhancements are welcome, of course. And some might be worthy of the ‘transformative’ moniker. But most will simply continue to groom what is already a fantastically powerful and capable computing experience — thanks to highly accessible interfaces, portability and near ubiquitous connectivity, multifaceted extensibility and, crucially, mainstream acceptance thanks to relative unobtrusiveness/minimal social awkwardness in the hardware’s form factor.

Voice-controlled platforms such as Amazon’s Alexa seem to have consumer potential, too, but of course such systems can (and are) already embedded on mobile.

The smartphone is not one device; it’s a chameleon. Steve Jobs knew this explicitly when he pulled back the curtain on the modern smartphone era, all the way back in 2007 — teasing the audience that Apple was launching a new iPod, a phone, an Internet communicator. “These are not three separate devices. This is one device,” he said, with a conjuror’s glee.

Nearly a decade later that multifaceted ‘one’ device continues to captivate.

Tech’s problem is not that it needs to find ‘the next computing platform’. Or that mobile platforms are tired and stale (see, for example, how little joy that argument has brought Microsoft and BlackBerry trying to carve an alternative niche in the mobile OS space). Tech’s problem is that industry mindsets are still stuck with an out-dated upgrade-or-die mentality. Meanwhile mobile technology has become absolutely mainstream. It’s not siloed away in its own Tomorrow’s World segment of specialist media, to be screened after hours to an audience of geeks and nerds; it’s all over the main news bulletin. And that genie isn’t about to go back in the bottle. The smartphone is here to stay. It’s what people are doing with their devices that matters.

There’s a need for the industry to reconfigure and reset expectations to understand that the future is not about people strapping a high tech eggbox to their face and sweating alone in a darkened room. It’s not even about engineers figuring out sophisticated ways to laser project virtual objects onto retinas. (Even if whatever sight-disrupting goggles Magic Leap is building manage to end up looking less socially awkward than a VR headset, exactly what pressing consumer problem will be solved by injecting virtual content into the real world — i.e. that can’t already be solved with a smartphone?)

The future? It’s undoubtedly going to continue to be shaped by the little sensor-packed screen that can.

It’s pretty telling that for all its extensive capabilities, the most popular and successful use for the chameleonic smartphone continues to be communications. Indeed, messaging apps have become hugely powerful platforms in their own right. People do lots of things with and on their phones. But overwhelmingly they use these devices to stay in touch with each other — whether that’s via Facebook, WhatsApp, Snapchat, iMessage, Instagram, email and so on. Communication remains the overriding imperative.

So the point is it’s not really about the technology. Technology is just a tool. The smartphone’s particular genius is that it gives us social animals an entire communications toolbox to play with. And that has proved to be truly compelling and tenacious computing.

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