Is the death of the smartphone upon us?

Some people think the smartphone could be dead in the next five years with technologies such as AR poised to take over.

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In the 10 years since Apple dropped the first iPhone, smartphones have become the most important cultural artefact of the last decade. Sales of the devices have saturated the global market to the point that everyone who wants one, has one.

This has led many analysts to predict the demise of the smartphone as other technologies evolve to supersede it. However, others maintain that these handheld devices represent the evolutionary endpoint of a certain type of design and will endure for years to come.

Arguments for both sides hold water, but if one looks at the shift in the last 10 years from PC to smartphone, it poses the question: What comes next?

Technology, by its very nature, is transient. As the needs of people shift and progress, so does the technology. How we communicate and perform daily tasks is set to change and with it the method of facilitation.

The death knell for smartphones?

There is a very real chance that smartphones will become a thing of the past in the next five to 10 years. With the inordinate amount of processing power and pervasiveness, smartphones have enjoyed the monopoly as a constant digital companion.

However, developers are actively looking for more solutions that integrate digital and physical life and smartphones cannot provide a logical interface for this next wave of technology. In particular, the commercial adoption of artificial intelligence (AI) and augmented reality (AR) poses a particular problem for these devices.

AI has already made serious inroads with various technologies. Virtual assistants that work on smartphones, like iPhone’s Siri and Samsung’s Bixby are already negating the need to be in physical contact with your device.

Wearables have increased in popularity recently and in certain applications, such as the health and fitness realm, have become mainstream. While satisfying the needs for specific applications, it is unlikely that they are set to become our primary digital connection. This is attributed to its screen size and processing power capacity.

However, virtual reality is rapidly becoming a worthy contender with astounding technologies emerging. Elon Musk recently launched a company called Neuralink which is developing “neural lace” technology which will allow people to communicate directly with computers without an external interface. This comprises implanted electrodes in the brain, essentially allowing people to upload their thoughts. Of course, there are many legal repercussions for this technology, but the intention is to improve human cognitive function and provide a “symbiosis” between man and machine.

There are already virtual and augmented reality headsets available as an add-on to your smartphone, as well as augmented reality glasses. This allows the output to be directly overlaid onto their reality, as opposed to people having to constantly engage with their devices. Fundamentally, moving from a situation where a person has to check their phone for a message, to one where that same message is beamed directly into their eyes.

Or is this just the beginning?

Smartphones spent much the last 10 years getting smaller, but more recently with the increase in capabilities, larger screen size is making a comeback. The advantages include being able to easily watch movies or video chat, which proves difficult on a tiny watch screen.

Proponents of smartphones insist that wearables, VR headsets and glasses have value as additions to current technology and not as replacements. According to Ben Wilson, an emerging technologies analyst for Pacific Crest, “There is no “Next Smartphone”. He described the smartphone revolution as "a singular event in compute platform history that is unlikely to repeat." He doesn’t foresee a platform to shift in its entirety, but rather several independent developments promoting passive computing. Advocates such as Wilson insist that smartphones will not go extinct; technologies will just develop to ensure people spend less time looking at the screen.

So what now?

Smartphones may well be on their way out, but while people are still reveling in their functionality, this technology will remain an intrinsic part of modern life and the lynchpin of digital integration. If and when this technology becomes obsolete, it will likely be supplanted by technology that bridges the gap between devices we carry and the complete digital incorporation into our bodies themselves. Whether smartphones are set to endure or are a technology on its last legs, it is difficult to say. But as long as there is a need for communication, digital integration and everything in between, there will be technology available to facilitate it. 

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