Look, Ma! No Hand­helds

Smart­phones are get­ting out­smarted, and apps will be the next to fall

Newsweek - - NEWS -

GET­TING A NEW smart­phone is be­com­ing about as ex­cit­ing as get­ting a new re­frig­er­a­tor.

You might’ve no­ticed this de­vel­op­ment if you got a new phone over the hol­i­days. Or you will see it if you watch what comes out of the 2016 Con­sumer Elec­tron­ics Show. Phones are where lap­tops were about 10 years ago. The de­sign and pur­pose are fixed and well-un­der­stood, so all that’s left are in­cre­men­tal im­prove­ments— making them a lit­tle thin­ner, adding a lit­tle more power or com­ing up with an oc­ca­sional new fea­ture like Sam­sung’s no­ti­fi­ca­tions along an outer edge. (Be still my heart.)

From now on, all the real in­no­va­tion will hap­pen out­side your phone—in apps, the cloud and other con­nected de­vices. “We’re at the cusp of a tran­si­tion to want­ing our tech­nol­ogy on us and around us,” Phillippe Kahn, one of the great in­ven­tors of mo­bile tech­nol­ogy, told me re­cently. “In­stead of hav­ing to carry gad­gets, tech­nol­ogy will just be there. The more we forget the tech­nol­ogy, the bet­ter.”

In­trigu­ingly, this new world will also be a threat to apps as we know them.

This is not to say that smart­phones are fin­ished as a busi­ness. About 3.5 bil­lion of the planet’s 7 bil­lion peo­ple own one. That leaves maybe an­other bil­lion more po­ten­tial cus­tomers—if you leave out small chil­dren, the 1.3 bil­lion who live on less than $1.25 a day, and the grand­moth­ers clutch­ing tightly their Nokia flip phones. And nearly ev­ery­one who owns a smart­phone to­day will buy a new one ev­ery couple of years, if not more fre­quently. This is why Ap­ple is val­ued at more than $600 bil­lion.

Still, we are, over time, go­ing to rely less on our phones, and in­stead get more things done by con­nect­ing to ap­pli­ca­tions and ser­vices through a dizzy­ing va­ri­ety of things. Our at­ten­tion will move from our phone screens to the ether— we’ll feel that our apps are in the air around us, and can be ac­cessed through any con­nected de­vice we en­counter.

Young con­sumers al­ready seem to be tilt­ing this way. In a sur­vey by Eric­s­son Con­sumerLabs, re­leased in De­cem­ber, half of re­spon­dents said that by 2021 they might not even be us­ing a smart­phone. They ex­pect to ac­cess apps in what they say are more con­ve­nient ways.

Like what? Well, cars, for ex­am­ple. To­day, if you want your Spo­tify mu­sic and GPS maps and voice calls in the car, you carry your phone into the car, prop it up in the cup holder, and try to stab the screen with your thumb while go­ing 72 miles per hour. We’ll come to re­al­ize this is cretinous, not to men­tion haz­ardous. Cars of the next decade will con­nect to the net­work, re­spond to voice com­mands and dis­play info like your playlists or maps on a heads-up dis­play in the wind­shield. In­stead of open­ing a dis­crete app to do some­thing, you’ll just say what you want—“play ran­dom Clash songs” or “pay my elec­tric bill.”

Ama­zon’s Echo is an­other nudge in that di­rec­tion—along with Ap­ple’s Siri and Google Now. Set up an Echo at home, and the cylin­dri­cal

de­vice con­stantly lis­tens for re­quests. Echo’s soft­ware com­pre­hends a prop­erly phrased re­quest, then goes to the cloud to do it—no phone re­quired. The tech­nol­ogy is still in its rudi­men­tary stage, but you can see how it makes for a much bet­ter way to or­der Chi­nese take­out in the mid­dle of sex ver­sus fum­bling for your phone on the night­stand and then tap­ping on the Seam­less app.

No sin­gle de­vice is go­ing to re­place the smart­phone. The cloud and ar­ti­fi­cial in­tel­li­gence soft­ware are go­ing to re­place the smart­phone. We’ll con­nect through what­ever makes sense—a smart­watch, con­nected eye­glasses, a touch-screen kitchen counter, cars, Echo, Nest, Fit­bit, Ocu­lus Rift. Mo­torola Mo­bil­ity re­cently patented a de­vice that would get im­planted un­der the skin and re­spond to voice com­mands. (Pok­ing a gad­get into your­self isn’t as weird as get­ting a belly-but­ton ring, which can’t even hum the na­tional an­them.) If a ser­vice needs to know who you are, it might scan your voice, face or finger­print. No more re­mem­ber­ing 259 user­names and pass­words.

To­day each app fo­cuses on one ser­vice, so any­thing you do on a de­vice re­quires you to think first about which app to open. That’s a bar­rier when you just want to get shit done. The tech­nol­ogy needs to act more like a great per­sonal as­sis­tant who al­ready knows your pref­er­ences and un­der­stands your short­hand or­ders.

Plus, who wants to have to in­stall a boat­load of apps on your watch, car, im­planted gad­get and a dozen other de­vices? It would drive you nuts. As Google di­rec­tor Aparna Chen­napra­gada says, the goal has to be to “de-silo and un­bun­dle the func­tion of apps” so soft­ware like Google Now, Siri or Echo can mix and match app ser­vices to ac­com­plish the task you re­quested. Once that hap­pens, we won’t think of apps the way we do now. In fact, it’s likely we won’t think of apps at all.

The smart­phone phys­i­cal gad­get won’t go away—no more than lap­tops have gone away. The de­vice, though, is prob­a­bly head­ing for a fu­ture as more of a pocket screen—some­thing that al­lows you to watch videos, read news sto­ries and take pic­tures when you’re out. It won’t be the cen­ter of your tech life—it will be an ad­junct.

That’s an­other way smart­phones are like lap­tops. Not so long ago, new lap­tops were ex­cit­ing to buy. They con­tained our lives on their hard drives and were our win­dows to the world through the In­ter­net. Now lap­tops seem more like work tools, and new ones don’t seem much dif­fer­ent from the one you bought a few years ago. Much the same fate awaits smart­phones.

On the flip side, next-gen­er­a­tion re­frig­er­a­tors will con­nect to the net­work and come armed with sen­sors and AI soft­ware that can au­to­mat­i­cally take care of im­por­tant things, like un­der­stand­ing that you just or­dered Gen­eral Tso’s chicken through Echo dur­ing fore­play, notic­ing that you’re out of beer and or­der­ing more to be de­liv­ered ASAP. Now that’s ex­cit­ing.

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