It’s almost hard to conceive of a time before smartphones, but they aren’t actually that old. The first generation iPhone was only unveiled in 2007 – 15 years ago this year. The Android operating system, which has come to dominate the smartphone space, was first released a year later.
In just 15 years smartphones have become an essential part of our work, entertainment, and social lives. But technology moves at an astounding rate, and it is quite possible that smartphones are reaching the end of their lives as a dominant technology.
Smartphone sales have been declining. This isn’t just a consequence of lowering demand – the COVID-19 pandemic did disrupt logistics and access to components, meaning the industry wasn’t making or shipping as many devices as optimal.
However, indications are that demand is softening, too, with consumers taking more time between refresh cycles and holding on to their older phones for longer. This will be a concern for those companies that have become some of the biggest businesses in the world on the back of regular smartphone refresh generations.
Reports suggest that the giants in the space – Apple, Samsung, and others – are now eying off what comes next for smartphones, with augmented reality – AR – being canvassed as a potential new revolution that will render the smartphone redundant. Is that the case, however, and what’s next for smartphones either way?
Smartphones are about to be revolutionized
One thing to keep in mind regarding smartphones is that the underlying technology that they rely on is about to get a serious upgrade. 5G is rolling out around the world, and 5G handsets are becoming readily available to more people than ever.
Why does this matter to the smartphone? Because it means that the phone will be able to do so much more. 5G speeds are many factors faster than 4G, meaning that the smartphone will be able to stream rich, complex data in real-time from anywhere.
In fact, a 5G-powered phone, being used as an Internet hotspot, will be faster than most land broadband connections!
This will unlock serious mobility, with the smartphone being at the center of it all. Already we were working remotely and flexibly as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, but with the 5G smartphone in hand, we’ll be able to do so with greater productivity and efficiency than ever.
Once people have upgraded to a phone with 5G capabilities, however, new iterations of phones will become subsequently less interesting for some time to come. In the early days of smartphones, each new release brought with it major improvements.
The form factors got upgraded to become bigger, more comfortable, and with a better screen. The cameras improved. The applications become deeper and richer.
Improvements will still come with each new device, but they will be iterative, rather than blockbuster-style exciting. Screens went from being difficult to look at for long periods of time to being comfortable for day-long use.
That was revolutionary and a major reason to upgrade a device as soon as possible. Now, however, screens are already so good it’s impossible to see the improvements with each new iteration. Those improvements are assuredly there, but they’re not a reason to rush out and buy a new device.
Another key trend in smartphones will be that they go completely wireless. Wireless charging, wireless connection to earphones and other accessories, and no connection ports on the devices themselves.
This will be controversial since it will render a lot of accessories redundant and force additional upgrades on a lot of people (and may cause some further hesitancy in people’s willingness to buy new devices), but the convenience and robustness of wireless in comparison to wired connections will prove itself over the next few years and become standard.
So will AR come to dominate?
The big question is whether exhaustion over smartphone upgrade cycles will lead the market to demand a solution that “moves on” from the smartphone.
The mooted AR technology might provide that. The basic idea of AR is to superimpose a digital reality over physical reality. So, for example, a person might wear special glasses that “read” and respond to the world around them.
Controlled by voice rather than physical interaction, you would “speak” to your glasses to check in on social media or email, have pathways to destinations mapped out for you before your eyes, and for phone calls and even video conferencing to occur with a simple spoken command.
Companies have been experimenting with this kind of technology for years now. Smartphones themselves include rudimentary AR capabilities, and Google has had its Google Glass product since 2013. What has always held AR back has been the sheer amounts of data that it requires to properly integrate the real world and the digital.
The mapping solution mentioned above, for example, would need to pull down GPS data in real-time, while displaying a dynamic overlay of arrows and have the ability to read the environment so that arrows don’t direct people to walk into solid walls and the like. All of that is intensely data-heavy.
So it is somewhat ironic that the technology that will revolutionize the smartphone may also lead to its demise. 5G technology will be able to power AR applications. In addition to the raw speeds on offer, 5G technology offers the lowest latency of any Internet connection.
This is important because latency introduces a “delay” to data transfer which means that real-time interaction is impossible. 5G’s latency is so low, however, that real-time interaction is now possible.
Smartphones are certainly not going to disappear overnight. Even as AR starts to replace the need for them, the tail will be long, as smartphones have a depth of functionality that AR is many years from catching up to.
However, as AR technology improves, it will offer additional conveniences and fit more naturally into our lives and lifestyles. For that reason, in the long game, it seems inevitable that AR will supersede the smartphone.