I have been thinking about smartphones lately, and wondering about what will be the next innovation for this class of personal computer. From a hardware standpoint, I think there is one remaining frontier of innovation for smartphones, and all remaining innovation will come from software.
Hardware manufacturers are stuck within the constraints of these devices because they are essentially slabs of plastic, and there is not too much you can do to make one slab stand out from another. So far, hardware manufacturers are focusing on size, but with 6 inch phones already on the market, and 7 inch slabs defined as tablets, it appears the phablet has hit a ceiling.
In my opinion the remaining field of hardware innovation for smartphones is in battery life. The quickest way for a company to grab a huge amount of the smartphone market is to produce a smartphone that can go a week between battery charges. Unfortunately, we appear to be a long way away from seeing real innovation in battery life.
Clearly, with all hardware being equal, the only way one smartphone stands apart from another is in software. Apple has exploited software the most by marketing an app store that has a huge catalog of apps for every situation imaginable. The problem with the app store is that one only uses a handful of apps, and there is only so many ways that a farting app can be made.
The direction that I see smartphones heading towards is in what I call really personal computing. As I have written before, the “personal” part of personal computing is transforming from representing the number of people who use a computer to defining the type of computing that the device performs.
By my definition, a personal computer can be tailored to my tastes and personality, knows and anticipates my needs, and supports multiple modes of interaction. Personal computing is intelligence aided by context to assist the user with doing whatever needs to be done throughout the day.
In the prologue for his book On Intelligence, Jeff Hawkins, who started Palm Computing and Handspring, writes that he wants to build truly intelligent machines. To do so, he is studying the brain, and Hawkins says by doing so, “We will be able to build genuinely intelligent machines, although they won’t be anything like the robots of popular fiction and computer science fantasy. Rather, intelligent machines will arise from a new set of principles about the nature of intelligence. As such, they will help us accelerate our knowledge of the world, help us explore the universe, and make the world safer.”
Hawkins believes that autonomous robots like Rosie from the Jetsons provide little benefit to humans, but what will provide benefit to humans are machines intelligent enough to assist us as we live our lives. Perhaps the best example that I can think of for the development of this type of intelligent machines is self-driving cars.
Google is investing huge amounts of money in the development of a self-driving car, and has realized a great deal of success in developing such a car. Today, if you are driving in Mountain View California, you might even cross paths with the Google car.
Most people find the idea of sitting in a car that drives itself scary, and something they will never do. To be safe on the road the Google car has to be an intelligent machine, and it is going to take time for us to trust it. Consider, however, parking assistance, collision avoidance, self-breaking, and lane change detection features available right now in many high-end automobiles. We are much more comfortable with these intelligent features that make it safer for us to drive, and this is the type of benefit that Hawkins sees intelligent machines providing.
I believe smartphones will become intelligent machines, and the ones that provide us with the most assistance by being the most personal, will be the ones that will continue to succeed in the market over the long term. In future articles, I will explore the ways that I see smartphones evolving into intelligent machines.