How will the end of smartphones look like?

By Martin Recke

It's hard to write something original about the end of smartphones. First, since it's obvious that the smartphone era won't last forever, pundits who predict the demise of smartphones inevitably will be right, sooner or later. That's an easy one. Secondly, the tenth anniversary of the iPhone last year, marked by the iPhone X and the Apple Watch 3, was a milestone, pointing to the direction of change.

But, and that's a big one, we should be careful not to confuse the long-term future with short-term developments. Think peak oil. It has been predicted for 150 years, but never happened. In a similar way, peak iPhone has been predicted at least since 2016. But has it happened yet? You guess.

“In the long run we are all dead”, economist John Maynard Keynes famously wrote in 1923. That probably applies to the smartphone as well. But how long will its long run turn out to be? Now that's hard to predict. The PC cycle lasted for around twenty years (1975-1995), the web cycle for fifteen years (1995-2010). Judging from this past experience, the smartphone cycle could reach its peak around the year 2020, giving way to the fourth cycle of personal computation.

Before we dig into the details of the upcoming fourth cycle, let's first note that a cycle being over doesn't equal the end of the eponymous device. At least not in the sense that PCs, web client devices (mostly laptop PCs) or smartphones would cease being sold at all. Desktop PCs still need to be replaced from time to time, and the same is true for laptops, despite tablets gaining momentum. The global PC penetration is still growing, and global internet penetration is about to reach the 50% milestone pretty soon.

Expect smartphones to be present for a while as well.

Do you remember the first iPhone? With its 3.5-inch screen, it was tiny compared to today's standards. Growing smartphone screen sizes made room for another tiny device, hitting the road three years ago: the Apple Watch. Of course, smartwatches had been around for decades, but it was again Apple that brought the smartwatch to the mass market.

So the fourth cycle of personal computing is all about the smartwatch? Not so fast.

Let's not forget the HomePod. Or, to be fair, the Amazon Echo and Google Home device families. And Apple's AirPods. Voice interfaces are clearly on the rise. This new paradigm of human-machine interaction isn't reflected in hardware sales so far, since voice assistants are already on smartphones, tablets, laptops and even desktops today. Someday, they might dethrone the smartphone as the universal remote control for our lives.

In this scenario, we will be talking to Alexa, Cortana, Google Assistant, or Siri through many different pieces of hardware, from the smartwatch and the smartphone to tablets, laptops, desktops, car stereos or smart speakers. Facebook is the only big five company that seems to be missing out on voice interfaces so far. Or isn't it?

Mike Elgan predicts:

The future of the virtual assistant is not where Apple dominates (on mobile phones) or where Amazon does (on home appliances). The space will be characterized by total ubiquity, which means wearables, all electronic devices, many IoT devices and embedded into all the places where humans spend time (offices, cars and homes). Virtual assistants will become core enterprise tools and will be the main way humans are enhanced through artificial intelligence (A.I.).

He also predicts that Google will win in this space. That could be huge. Google would become the dominant force of the fourth cycle, possibly reaching an even higher penetration than the already almost ubiquitous smartphone. To put things in perspective: The global smartphone penetration is projected to reach the 40% milestone in 2021. This leaves some space for further growth beyond today's limits.

And we didn't even discuss augmented reality. Another story, with the potential to replace almost anything, including reality itself. As of spring 2018, we are still waiting for the AR glasses product category to take off. The software already looks promising. It will take a company with the stature of Apple to get hardware, software and services right and ready for the mass market. Pretty much the same is true for virtual reality or, as we prefer to say, immersive experience.

This leaves us with a very broad device landscape. Perhaps, the fourth cycle of personal computation won't be dominated by a single type of device, like the PC or the smartphone, but instead by strong platforms that can tie all these very different devices together with software and services. The winner will be whoever provides the superior user experience. It may well be the established iOS/Android duopoly, once again.

Photo by Matt Botsford on Unsplash