10 May 2015

When the future of smartphones was in doubt

It’s hard to believe it now. But ten years ago, the future of smartphones was in doubt.

At that time, I wrote these words:

Smartphones in 2005 are roughly where the Internet was in 1995. In 1995, there were, worldwide, around 20-40 million users of the Internet. That’s broadly the same number of users of smartphones there are in the world today. In 1995, people were debating the real value of Internet usage. Was it simply an indulgent plaything for highly technical users, or would it have lasting wider attraction? In 2005, there’s a similar debate about smartphones. Will smartphones remain the preserve of a minority of users, or will they demonstrate mass-market appeal?

That was the opening paragraph in an essay which the Internet site Archive.org has preserved. The original location for the essay, the Symbian corporate website, has long since been retired, having been absorbed inside Nokia infrastructure in 2009 (and, perhaps, being absorbed in turn into Microsoft in 2014).

Symbian Way Back

The entire essay can be found here, warts and all. That essay was the first in a monthly series known as “David Wood Insight” which extended from September 2005 to September 2006. (The entire set still exists on Archive.org – and, for convenience, I’ve made a copy here.)

Ten years later, it seems to me that wearable computers in 2015 are roughly where smartphones were in 2005 (and where the Internet was in 1995). There’s considerable scepticism about their future. Will they remain the preserve of a minority of users, or will they demonstrate mass-market appeal?

Some commentators look at today’s wearable devices, such as Google Glass and Apple Watch, and express disappointment. There are many ways these devices can be criticised. They lack style. They lack “must have” functionality. Their usability leaves a lot to be desired. Battery life is too short. And so on.

But, like smartphones before them – and like the world-wide web ten years earlier – they’re going to get much, much better as time passes. Positive feedback cycles will ensure that happens.

I share the view of Augmented Reality analyst Ori Inbar, who wrote the following a few months ago in an updated version of his “Smart Glasses Market Report”:

When contemplating the evolution of technology in the context of the evolution of humanity, augmented reality (AR) is inevitable.

Consider the innovation cycles of computing from mainframes, to personal computers, to mobile computing, to wearables: It was driven by our need for computers to get smaller, better, and cheaper. Wearables are exactly that – mini computers on track to shrink and disappear on our bodies. In addition, there is a fundamental human desire for larger and sharper displays – we want to see and feel the world at a deeper level. These two trends will be resolved with Augmented Reality; AR extends our natural senses and will become humans’ primary interface for interaction with the world.

If the adoption curve of mobile phones is to repeat itself with glasses – within 10 years, over 1 billion humans will be “wearing.”

The report is packed with insight – I fully recommend it. For example, here’s Ori’s depiction of four waves of adoption of smart glasses:

Smart Glasses Adoption

(For more info about Augmented Reality and smart glasses, readers may be interested in the forthcoming Augmented World Expo, held 8-10 June at the Santa Clara Convention Centre in Silicon Valley.)

What about ten more years into the future?

All being well, here’s what I might be writing some time around 2025, foreseeing the growing adoption of yet another wave of computers.

If 1995-2005 saw the growth of desktop and laptop computers and the world wide web, 2005-2015 saw the growing ubiquity of smartphones, and 2015-2025 will see the triumph of wearable computers and augmented reality, then 2025-2035 is likely to see the increasingly widespread usage of nanobots (nano-computers) that operate inside our bodies.

The focus of computer innovation and usage will move from portables to mobiles to wearables to insideables.

And the killer app of these embedded nanobots will be internal human enhancement:

  • Biological rejuvenation
  • Body and brain repair
  • Body and brain augmentation.

By 2025, these applications will likely be in an early, rudimentary state. They’ll be buggy, irritating, and probably expensive. With some justification, critics will be asking: Will nanobots remain the preserve of a minority of users, or will they demonstrate mass-market appeal?

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