Smarter smartphones for smarter people

by jeremy on September 17, 2012

This is a piece I wrote for the BBC World Service..

So, the iPhone 5 is here, and while it will sell well, probably better than any phone before it, there’s a sense of anticlimax: this, we are told, is evolution, not revolution. None of the mind-bending sense of newness and change that the iPhone and iPad used to engender. This is a sign, we’re told, that the market is mature, that there’s not much more that can be done.

I’d like to suggest another way of looking at this. For sure, not every new product that comes out of Apple HQ can blow our minds. But that doesn’t mean the mobile device is now doomed for a stodgy and reliable plateau of incremental improvements, like cars, washing machines or TVs.

In fact, quite the opposite. The world of the mobile device has already made extraordinary changes to our world, and we’re only at the start of a much larger set of changes. Our problem is that we’re just not very good judging where we sit amidst all this upheaval.

Consider these little factlets from a survey conducted last year by Oracle. At first glance they seem contradictory, but I’ll explain why they’re not.

More than half of those surveyed thought their mobile phone would replace their iPod/MP3 player by 2015. A year later when they asked them again, a third said it already had. Oracle found more or less the same was true of people’s global positioning systems, or GPS.

Then there’s this. More than two thirds of the people surveyed said they use a smartphone, and of those people, 43% have more than one.

In other words, more and more functions that used to be a separate device are now part of our mobile phone. And yet at the same time a significant chunk of users have more than one mobile phone.

What this means, I think, is that we are integrating mobile phones into our lives in a way that even those who spend time researching this kind of thing don’t really get. In fact we’ve integrated them so much we need two.

That’s because, of course, they’re not really phones: they’re devices that connect us to all sorts of things that we hold dear, whether it’s social, work or personal.

But there’s still a long way to go. The device of the future will make everything more seamless. A company in Thailand, for example, allows you to use your smartphone to open your hotel door, tweak the room lights and air con, order food and switch TV channels.

In other words interact with your surroundings. Some via connected devices, from air conditioning units to washing machines, from street signs to earthquake sensors. Other services will sift piles and piles of big data in the cloud, and push important information to us when we need it. Google already has something called Google Now which tries to anticipate your problems and needs before you do: a traffic jam up ahead, a sudden turn in the weather, a delayed flight.

Devices will also interact with the disconnected world, measuring it for us — whether it’s our blood sugar levels or the air quality. Sense movement, odors, colors, frequencies, speed. It may even, one day, see through walls for us.

So our smart phones are just starting to get smart. We’re already smart enough to see how useful they can be. The bits that are missing are the technologies that blend this all together. This could still take some time, but don’t for a moment think the mobile world is about to get boring.

{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Julio Romo September 26, 2012 at 5:35 pm

Jeremy, as always great insight into how the mobile sector is adapting. To a certain degree the change is coming from individuals who work in a crowdsource manner to find solutions for elementary problems that people have.

How people think of solutions and make them real-time and relevant is what is going to change how groups and individuals behave.

As a Communications and Digital Consultant I ask clients about how the processes – customer service, sales, engagement, is geared around the real-time multiple location environment that they are operating in. Many look blank. Others see the opportunity.

It is still, as you said, early days, but with figures (from Ovum) showing the adoption of smartphones rapidly increasing across international markets the barrier left is that of how telecoms limit data bandwidth and therefore usage of these devices. That is, IMO, what is going to hold back adoption of new technologies.

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jeremy October 3, 2012 at 8:14 pm

Interesting, Julio. It’s a good point about crowdsourcing. I see this as the next wave of innovation, since the tools are becoming available that make this possible over even the flimsiest connection, and with the minimum of prior knowledge or expertise.

On the telcos limiting bandwidth, it’s a good point. Though it’s interesting that Apple has moved a lot of the processing back into the phone with iOS, at least in its maps app. There’s very little data usage apparently. As phones get more powerful and storage prices decline further, it might not be the bottleneck it currently appears.

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graham October 3, 2012 at 6:58 pm
jeremy October 3, 2012 at 8:17 pm

Interesting, Graham. Was a very smart speech he gave.

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