After the smartphone? Ambient computing could be our next digital fix.

By Adam Tinworth

11/05/2018 | The smartphone isn’t going to die any time soon. What will die - and possibly sooner than you think - is the central role it plays in our digital life. And with it will die the idea that any device will play a central role in our digital existence.

The way we fix phone addiction is by exploding so much of what we do on our phones right now into a whole cornucopia of connected devices, both big and small. But what will the post-smartphone era look like - and how can we take control of our migration there?

This sort of futurology is a risky business. When predicting the future, you always have two choices: be vague, and be right (eventually) or be specific and be wrong (to some degree). We wouldn’t be NEXT if we didn’t make an effort to be specific, so I’m going to try to further refine my vision of what follows the phone as the next major era of digital, because mindfully making this journey to that era is critical to not repeating the mistakes of the past.

I think it’s pretty clear that there won’t be a single device that defines this era, in contrast to the way that the mainframe, the pc and the phone have defined the most recent eras. We are entering the age of pervasive and ambient computing, where we are surrounded by devices that facilitate the digital aspects of our life.

Here are the puzzle pieces of the next era of tech

Why am I confident in this prediction? You can see all the pieces dropping into place right now. Extrapolate forwards from these pieces, by developing and connecting them, and you can see the future coming together.

Cloud

This is the first prerequisite. To make pervasive computing work you need constant connectivity and cloud-stored data. Over the last 10 years we’ve seen most of the infrastructure to support this fall into place, and start tumbling in price. This is the foundational technology. And it’s here. Onwards.

Wearables

Wearable tech is the earliest manifestation of the diminishing of the phone’s centricity in our lives. My watch takes away notifications from the phone - and sometimes music, too. My earbuds are tiny ear computers that right now add a voice gateway to Siri, but I’m sure there’s more to come in the future.

More than that, wearables have the potential to be our major identity device. Again, we can see early echoes of that future technology in what we have today. I can sit down at my computer and it automatically logs me in, because it senses my watch and verifies my identity via it. Many of my day to day shop purchases happen via my watch and Apple Pay, because it’s running constant biometric authentication, as long as it’s attached to my wrist.

My smart home knows where I am, and basically what I’m doing, because my watch tells it. Any screen become my screen, simply because the watch tell that screen to make it so. These personal devices have an incredible potential to be central to our digital existences, without demanding our attention in the way phones did.

So, wearables are both central to this vision — as the identity component — but also a strong leading indicator of the diminishing role of the phone.

Smart speakers

Smart speakers are probably the most Star Treky of technologies we are using right now. Characters in the later series of that franchise used computers by talking into the air, with a computer voice responding. As smart speakers get better, more pervasive and, crucially, cheaper, our homes become environments for pervasive computing, mediated by voice. Some — like the Google Home — are already able to differentiate users based on their individual voices.

Right now, these are very home-based. Outdoors is handled by your wearables. And workplace smart speakers are inevitably in all the big tech companies’ R&D labs right now. But there’s a reason so much of the development is happening for the residential market.

The home is the ideal place to do this, because it’s the place you’re least likely to be actually carrying your phone. You drop it on a charger when you get in, and let the pervasive voice computing handle your needs, until you actually have to pick up a screen. Talking of which…

Screen interchangeability

As we start evolving ever more personal devices - wearables are tied to a single human far more than even a phone - it’s likely that some of older devices will become even more communal. What is already happening is the removal of the PC-centricity of work. On Apple devices we have Handoff, on Microsoft-based ones we have Continuity, both of which are developing towards allowing you to seamlessly switch your work from one device to another, regardless of the style of activity. That trend is only going to get stronger as time goes on.

The TV will increasingly be seen as just another screen. We’ve already got a generation growing up who see the TV as a secondary screen at best, one that’s dumber than the ones they use more often. Perhaps the TV manufacturers have been going the wrong way with trying to drive upgrade through tech like 3D, or 8k, which very few of us have houses big enough to benefit from - we physically can’t get far enough away from the screens for it to be worthwhile over 4K - or even 1080p HD.

Instead, the TV might end up as another factor of the traditional PC.

The phone

New tech rarely kills old tech. The old mainframes are today’s servers. PCs still matter in the phone age. And phone will still matter in the ambient age. They’ll become our cameras, books, notepads and possibly even our personal, always-on Internet connection, that our other devices sip their data from. They’ll just be coming out of our pockets a lot less.

Clouds

The challenges

One of the interesting things about this wave of the future is that there will be no launch, no keynote to look back on that redefines this age. We’ll slowly add more and more tech to our lives, and one day, we’ll wake up and realise that we’re no longer staring at our screens the whole time. And that’s a good thing.

But there are still some things we need to be mindful of, as we drift progressively into this ambient future:

Platform lock in

Right now, there’s precious little interoperability. If you live in the Google ecosystem, you’re going to want devices from that ecosystem. Ditto Apple and Microsoft. Amazon plays a little better with others, but offers a less complete ecosystem of its own.

The more you commit to an extended range of devices from one ecosystem, the more locked in you are. That’s great news for the vendor - but terrible for you as a consumer. It’s not great for other businesses, either, as the gatekeeper tax kicks in. In one sense, this is why, as someone who largely lives in the Apple ecosystem, it was actually good news to see Apple dropping out of the router market: the company no longer feels the need to produce every element of the ecosystem. If I ever have to switch away from their products, those non-Apple devices I have can come with me.

Data security and control

Once your data is in the cloud, what’s happening to it? Is it being kept secure and encrypted, or is it being analysed and sold on? And if it’s being mined in that way, is it a price you are happy to pay for cheaper kit, or cloud storage?

The last six months have made everyone much more aware of this, but we need to start making smart, mindful choices of where and how we store our data, and who we trust to do that.

Even more than that, current internet of things devices have a terrible record on security. We need to up our game on that, either as providers, partners or consumers.

Cost

One of the good things for vendors of this vision is that you’re selling many more devices than you were before. You might keep your phone for a few more years, but you are also shelling out for smart speaker and wireless earbuds and wearables and… and so on. We might end up spending a whole lot more on tech, but not notice it because it’s more incremental.

Shattering the screen

For all the surface complexity of this vision, it actually simplifies the digital experience. You can access what you want, where you want, whenever you want. And you don’t have to stare at a screen the whole time to do it. It takes all the advantages of the smartphone, and magnifies them, while taking away the major downside - that addictive screen.

Personally, I can’t wait.


Lead photo by Vladimir Proskurovskiy on Unsplash

Want to learn more?