I’m kind of an odd egg, as is I suppose evidenced by the fact that I use phrases like “odd egg.” The thing is, just about the time that ‘everyone knows’ something, I start questioning the basic assumptions of what ‘everyone knows.’ It isn’t that the common wisdom is always wrong, because it isn’t. However, I have noticed that once ‘everyone knows’ something, it tends to take on a life of its own, where people stop thinking about the reasons behind the ‘fact’ and just take it as a given because ‘everyone knows’ it is true. In this spirit, I have to ask, are the days of the smartphone numbered?
It seems counterintuitive, but then most good questions do. Phones are getting smarter every day, and all the big guys are competing to see who can make the smartest phone that does the most neat stuff. They have cameras, and media players, and color screens, and GPS, they play games, they have keyboards, they can connect to your email, and store you calender, and manage your contacts. Why would anyone want to go back to just a phone? Well, the answer is actually pretty simple, because a mobile phone is a technological end point.
It is a phone, you can take with you anywhere, and that is the definition of a mobile phone. We reached that end point quite some time ago, and now it is just an endless cycle of refinement to make a more appealing product, but the end point is still the same, a phone you can take anywhere with you. It is just like a personal computer that way. Sure, there are always improvements, but the goal has already been reached, a computer that is accessible to just about anyone, and affordable enough that almost anyone can buy one.
The smartphone, on the other hand, is a transitional technology. It exists somewhere in a grey area between a mobile phone, and a portable computer. It doesn’t have any set criteria it has to meet, except be ‘smarter’ than a phone. I really wonder if there is ultimately any room for the smartphone. Processing power gets cheaper and more energy efficient every day. Displays that can run all day barely sipping on your battery really are just around the corner. Memory is getting unbelievably cheap and energy efficient.
Formerly esoteric and almost forgotten about technologies like voice and handwriting recognition have quietly gotten quite good while no one was looking. Batteries are even slowly getting better. All of this really makes me wonder how much longer it will be until the slow but steady progress of ultra-mobile PCs reach their end point, and if there will be any room in the market for a smartphone when they do?
Just look at the BlackBerry. As we all know, it is an almost perfect extension to your email inbox, but do you really need an extension for your inbox once you can just carry your inbox with you? I’m sure there isn’t a BlackBerry user alive who hasn’t had to reply to someone “I’ll check that out when I get back to my computer” or thought “I’ll wait to reply until I’m at a real computer.” That is exactly the sort of thing that makes me wonder how much life is really left in the smartphone concept.
When I think about the future of mobile technology, I really don’t see people walking around with fancy phones with big screens that are covered with tiny keyboards, running scaled down connectors to the applications they use on their desk. I see a little device that is about the size of the battery of a modern phone, but that is in fact a wireless package and a battery with no physical interface at all, and then a Bluetooth-style headset that is your stupid voice-dialing phone, and then a handheld PC that lasts all day, and runs full desktop apps with a voice and handwriting-enabled interface that integrates with your headphone and little pocket wireless package.