Nine years and a few days ago, Apple released the iPhone, and the world was never the same.
With the iPhone’s decade mark in sight, the tech world is starting to get a little restless for the next big shift in computing, even as the iPhone itself starts to look a little boring.
Smartphones have revolutionised everything from retail to banking to education. Aren’t we due for some new, big, world-changing gadget?
Well, there’s some bad news and some good news.
The bad news is that we probably won’t another big, world-shaking product introduction like the iPhone any time soon.
The good news is everybody’s right! The next big thing is already here, and you probably haven’t even noticed it yet.
Last of the old
People think of the iPhone and the smartphones it inspired as revolutionary devices — small enough to carry everywhere, hefty enough to handle an increasingly large number of our daily tasks, and packed full of enough cameras and GPS sensors to make apps like Snapchat and Uber uniquely possible.
But consider the smartphone from another perspective. The desktop PC and the laptop are made up of some combination of a mouse, keyboard, and monitor. The smartphone just took that model, shrunk it down, and made the input virtual and touch-based.
That’s not to downplay the monumental impact of smartphones. But they simply optimised something we already had, more than anything. And there’s a reason that with devices like the iPad Pro and the Surface Book, laptops, phones, and tablets are drifting closer together, as they share a similar philosophical core.
To paraphrase “Return of the Jedi,” in some important ways, the iPhone wasn’t the first of a new kind of computer, it’s the last of the old.
First of the new
Meanwhile, in the last several years, we’ve seen a lot of “computers” that completely ignore that form factor: Thermostats; self-driving cars, headsets and goggles; air hockey tables; meat thermometers; tiny voice-powered gadgets to sit in a living room. The list goes on.
All of those devices are computers, as there’s a lot of processing power going on behind the scenes. But they’re nobody really thinks of them as computers.
And while we all wonder about whether or not the next iPhone will have a headphone jack or not, these gadgets are slowly infiltrating every aspect of our lives. Fitness trackers for athletes; robot-powered burger joints for the hungry; thermostats and cameras for the home; virtual reality headsets for hardcore gamers.
You’re just going to see more of this trend: Literally everything, everywhere, in all aspects of your life, will get a processor onboard and get a lot smarter.
It’s not so much robots or virtual reality — it’s robots and virtual reality and wearable devices and artificial intelligence and all kinds of other stuff all at once.
A galaxy far away
Not all of the devices will be any good, especially right off the bat. Existing smart-home gear, for example, is a security nightmare, and to be honest, nobody really needs an internet-connected fridge. This Twitter account keeps an ongoing catalogue of bad ideas in the “Internet of Things” movement.
But it’s really just the growing pains of a trend that is functionally unstoppable: Stuff that is smart, with an internet connection back up to Amazon’s or Microsoft’s or Google’s cloud to make it even smarter still.
Smartphones will still be with us for a while — until new interaction methods like voice interfaces, virtual reality, and holograms get better, they’re still the best and most portable way to interact with all of those intelligent gadgets.
Just know that the arrow of history is pointing towards a whole galaxy of smart everything in constant communication. Where an iPhone is pretty good at lots of things, you’re going to see more dedicated tools for specific tasks start to emerge, all powered by intelligence and connectivity.
Need to work on a project from far away? Virtual reality. Need to do a menial task, a lot? Robots. Need to order tickets with your voice? Chatbots. Different tools for different needs, rather than funelling everything through the filter of the catch-all iPhone.
There’ll be a breakthrough smart washing machine, a breakthrough smart cup, a breakthrough smart everything…but in a time when everything is intelligent, no single product will have the same ripple effect that the iPhone did in 2007.
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