What comes after smartphones?

With all the press and the inescapable ads for new iPhones, Samsung Galaxy, Google Pixel and other snazzy devices, it’s hard to think of the smart phone as a transitional technology.

But it is.

Here are three recent indicators:

Apple and Facebook share a hypothesis that life contains moments when lugging a smartphone is a drag. The Apple Watch commercials feature active people running with just the Watch and wireless ear buds. (I’m not sure why VR is less alluring with a smartphone unless one plans to be naked and therefore pocketless in real life while visiting virtual life.)

You might be wondering about that third indicator. How does the death of non-internet-connected iPods suggest that smartphones — the technology that replaced the iPod — are going away?

What happened to the iPod will happen to the iPhone.

Once smartphones took off after 2007, Apple cannily realized that this new wave of devices was going to absorb the customer base for listening to digital music from the iPod. Who wants to carry around a smartphone and an mp3 player when the smartphone can play mp3s just fine and sounds the same?

What both iPod and iPhone owners care about is listening to music, not the device. If anybody was going to cannibalize Apple’s iPod customers, the company thought, then it should be Apple.

As I look at technology and behavior trends, one of my axioms is that verbs are more important than nouns.

People want to take pictures, and most people prefer the fastest and easiest option for doing so. Devoted photographers still use single lens reflex cameras — either film or digital — but (as the Kodak company learned to its dismay) most people don’t want the hassle and expense of getting film developed, so instead they just whip out their phones. In our latest Surveying the Digital Future survey, for example, we found that 89 percent of Americans take pictures with their mobile phones.

It’s important to focus our analytical attention on the activity — taking pictures — rather than the device the people use to do the activity, because behavior is liquid and can be poured from one container into another.

None of the actions people perform with smartphones are limited to smartphones, and that means that the smartphone won’t be with us forever.

What will this post-smartphone future look like?

Computing power is increasing, as is the ubiquity of wifi and other over-the-air internet connections. Cloud Computing, where the heavy lifting of computation happens online instead of on a computer, means that smaller and smaller devices will have greater and greater processing power.

There’s a common cliché that today’s smartphone is more powerful than the computer that landed the Apollo 11 on the moon. In a few short years, a device the size of a pea will connect to processing power a thousand times greater than today’s smartphone.

So, instead of smartphones in our pockets or purses as our single, do-everything devices, we’ll have Personal Area Networks (PANs)– clusters of devices worn on different parts of our bodies or hovering nearby.

Instead of the glass-and-metal rectangle of today’s smartphone, we might have the computer guts of our PANs in the shape of a silver dollar, or distributed across a series of beads worn as a necklace.

Both in the data from our Future of Transportation project and in watching the uptake for Amazon’s Alexa, Apple’s Siri and the Google Assistant, we see voice interfaces rising in popularity, so it’s likely that the main PAN input will be our voices.

For output, PAN we will receive information both via the voice of the digital assistant (“turn left here, Brad”) and also via Augmented Reality (AR) glasses like the rumored-to-forthcoming Magic Leap technology. Eventually, these will evolve into contact lenses.

If we need to type, we’ll have a virtual keyboard projected onto our AR vision, and we’ll type on any flat surface– the way we type on touch interfaces today. Likewise, we might wear barely-there connected gloves for input. Or, we might carry around a small stylus for sketching in AR or VR, or even a fancy pen that works on real paper as well as virtual paper.

The cutting-edge health sensors in the latest Apple Watch will seem Flintstonian in comparison to the distributed sensors in clothing as well as implanted in our bodies, continually sharing health information with our CPUs.

What stands in the way of this Post Smart Phone future?

Two things are standing in the way of the brave new world of PANs, one technological and one cultural.

The technological obstacle is battery life. Nobody wants to plug in a dozen or more devices (CPU, glasses, stylus, shoes and socks, underwear, pants, shirt, hat…) every night at bedtime, so battery technology will need to improve and the power-consumption demands of the devices will need to become more efficient.

Electric vehicle manufacturers like Tesla are paving the way for better batteries for cars, and eventually that technology will shrink and trickle down to micro devices.

On the cultural side, if you’re wearing a screen on your face and the processing power is in a silver dollar in your pocket, then how do you take a selfie?

While some people make fun of selfie-obsessed youth (not that young people have any monopoly on either narcissism or the ongoing high-tech curation of it through selfies), as my friend Jill Walker Rettberg compellingly argued in her book Seeing Ourselves Through Technology, selfies are an important emergent genre of self-expression — one that is here to stay.

I predict that many of us will carry a selfie-specialized, lightweight, thin, credit-card sized screen that will have both a powerful camera and high-definition resolution. If you look at the new Google Clips camera announced last week and imagine it even smaller, more powerful and with a display, then you’ll see what I mean.

With increased battery life, some of us will also have selfie drones that will take off and orbit us whenever we simply think about taking a selfie, since we’ll have small sensors affixed to or implanted in our skull paying attention to how our brain waves change when we’re thinking about particular things.

Focus on content, not containers

The death of the smartphone is hard to imagine today.  But when the iPod debuted in 2001, it was hard to imagine that it would be displaced just six years later with the arrival of the iPhone.

The moral of this story is not that we’ll all someday soon be even more wired up and connected than we are today (although we will).

Instead, the important take-away idea is that the smartphone (a noun) is a container for a series of activities (verbs), and that the container is distinct from the content.

Don’t mistake the glass for the wine.*

[Cross-posted on the Center for the Digital Future site and elsewhere.]

* For a sci-fi, near-future dystopian version of some of these interactive technologies, you might enjoy my 2011 novel, Redcrosse.

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