A romp through the weird, scary, awesome future of mobile communications.
The near-term future of phones is fairly well-established. The iPhone 5 was released yesterday and its similarity to every Apple phone since 2007 serves as a reminder that our current mobile devices have been sitting on the same plateau for years.
Reflecting on Apple's recent product launches, author and professor at NYU's Interactive Telecommunications Program Clay Shirky told me, "They're selling transformation and shipping incrementalism."
The screens, cameras, and chips have gotten better, the app ecosystems have grown, the network speeds have increased, and the prices have come down slightly. But the fundamental capabilities of these phones hasn't changed much. The way that you interact with phones hasn't changed much either, unless you count the mild success of Siri and other voice command interfaces.
"Is the iPhone 5 the last phone?" Shirky said. "Not the last phone in a literal sense, but this is the apotheosis of this device we would call a phone."
Danny Stillion of the legendary design consultancy IDEO calls our current technological moment the "phone-on-glass paradigm," and it's proven remarkably successful over the last half-decade, essentially conquering the entire smartphone market in the United States and around the world. It seems like this Pax Cupertino could last forever. But if we know a single thing about the mobile phone industry, it's that it has been subject to disruptions.
No one has tracked these market shifts better than Horace Dediu at Asymco. He's documented what he calls "a tale of two disruptions," one from above in Apple and one from below in cheap Chinese and Indian manufacturers. In just the last five years, Nokia, Samsung, LG, and RIM have seen their market shares and profits collapse due to this pincer movement. Our conceit is that change will come again to the smartphone market, and that the phones and market leaders of 2022 will not be the same as they are today.
What might their input methods be? How might the software work? What are we going to call these things that we only occasionally use to make telephone calls?
"It's not clear to me that there is any such device as the phone in 2022. Already, telephony has become a feature and not even a frequently used feature of those things we put in our pockets. Telephony as a purpose built device is going away, as it's been going away for the TV and the radio," Clay Shirky said to me, when I asked him to speculate. "So what are the devices we have in our pockets?"
(For the record, I tried to get Apple, Google, Microsoft, Samsung, HTC, and Nokia to talk about what they think the future of phones looks like, but none of them "responded to me by my deadline." Don't worry, the people I did get to talk to me were probably more interesting and forthright anyway.)
Let's start with Dediu and how we interact with our machines. "A change in input methods is the main innovation that I expect will happen in the next decade. It's only a question of when," Dediu wrote to me in an email. Looking at his data, he makes a simple, if ominous observation: "I note that when there is a change in input method, there is usually a disruption in the market as the incumbents find it difficult to accept the new input method as 'good enough.' "
So, when touchscreens arrived on the scene, other phonemakers didn't quite believe that it was Apple's way or the highway. After all, hadn't touchscreens been tried before and failed? And besides, typing emails was so hard on those things! And people loved their Crackberries! And. And. And then all their customers were gone.
Do we have any reason to expect that the touchscreen will remain the way we interact with our mobile devices for the next decade? Not really. They have proven to be effective, but there are clear limitations to interacting with our devices via a glass panel.
One critic of the touchscreen is Michael Buckwald, CEO of the (kind-of-mindblowing) gesture interface company, Leap Motion. "The capacitive display was a great innovation, but it's extremely limiting," Buckwald told me. "Even though there are hundreds of thousands of apps, you can kind of break them down into about a dozen categories. It seems like the screen is holding back so many possibilities and innovation because we have these powerful processors and the thing that's limiting us is the 2D flat display and that touch is limited."
One big problem is that if you want to move something on a touchscreen from point A to point B, you have actually have to drag it all the way there. i.e. there is a 1:1 relationship between your movement and the movement "in" the device. "To move something 100 pixels, your fingers you have to move your fingers 100 pixels and they end up blocking the thing you're interacting with," he told me.
Buckwald, of course, has a solution to this problem. His company makes a gesture control system that allows you to move your fingers to control computers and gadgets. That could mean what they call "natural input," which is showing you a 3D environment and letting you reach into it and touch stuff, or it could be a more abstract system that would allow for controlling the menus and files and channels that we already know.
"You can imagine someone sitting in front of a TV [controlling it] with the intuitiveness of a touchscreen and the efficiency of a mouse," he said.
But their technology has already been miniaturized and so it could already be used for controlling phones, too.
"What we envision of the future is a world where the phone is the only computer that you use. It's become very small and miniaturized and it has a lot of storage and you carry it around in a pocket or attached to you and then it wirelessly connects on different displays based on what you're trying to do," Buckwald said. "If you sit down at a desk, it connects to that monitor and Leap would control that. If you're out on a street, it connects to a head-mounted display and Leap would control that."
Others, like Dediu and Stillion see voice as the transformative input. Siri has not been the unabashed success that Apple's commercials set us up for. It's buggy and it seems to fall into some human-computer interaction uncanny valley. Its argot is human, but its errors are bot. The whole thing is kind of confusing. (Plus, my wife just viscerally hates it, which has made it a flop in our house.) Nonetheless, both these observers think voice input will play a big role in the future.
"When we communicate to computers we use tactile input and visual output. When we communicate with people we typically use audio for both input and output. We almost never use tactile input and consider visual contact precious and rare," Dediu wrote to me. "Our brains seem to cope well with the audio only interaction method. I therefore think that there is a great opportunity to engage our other senses for computer interaction. Mainly because I believe that computers will emerge as companions and assistants rather than just communication tools. For companionship, computers will need to be able to interact more like people do."