THAT FIVE-INCH PHONE in your pocket, the one you absolutely can’t live without, does damn near anything these days. It is the Great Usurper, rendering everything from newspapers to music players to actual human interaction all but obsolete. People embraced smartphones faster than any other gadget in the history of the world, creating a trillion-dollar industry that is expected to reach more than six billion people in the next four years.
And yet some people dare to ask, “What’s next?”
I hear this question from smartwatch manufacturers and lightbulb companies and headphone makers and so many others in tech. They’re all trying to find The Next Big Thing and figure out what the world looks like when smartphones finally go away. Some are betting on the Internet of Things to blanket the world in computers, making the one in your pocket moot. Others say the future lies with computers on your body. Or in your body. Everyone is in the spaghetti-throwing phase, searching for the iPhone (or Pixel) killer.
But here’s the thing: Smartphones aren’t going away.
Not anytime soon. Smartphones are, and will remain, the hub of a new wheel, the sun around which the universe orbits, the … well, pick your metaphor. The point is, everyone is asking the wrong question. The right question is, Now that everyone on the planet has a smartphone in their pocket, what crazy new stuff can we do?
Who Wore It Best
Look at this in terms of two competing worldviews: the smartphone killer and the smartphone supplementer. Two headphones I’ve been testing lately offer a perfect juxtaposition of these perspectives. One is a pair of fire-engine red cans made by the Chinese company Vinci. In addition to playing music, the Vincis feature 32GB of storage and a 3G connection. You can stream or store music without your phone. They measure your heart rate and steps, and let you control your headphones with your voice. If that’s not enough for you, the giant touchscreen on the left earcup lets you control your music with swipes and see your stats at a glance.
On paper, it doesn’t sound like a totally crazy idea. But the Vincis are a totally crazy idea. Let’s ignore the hideous reskin of Android they’re running, along with the fact they’re so heavy and cumbersome they’re painful to wear. All the Vincis really do is clamp an obsolete phone to your skull. The Vinci Voice OS isn’t as good as Siri or Google Assistant, and the entire interface is cumbersome and slow. The touchscreen is so bad it took me a dozen tries to type the eight letters in my Wi-Fi password—and, by the way, it’s insane that I must connect my headphones to Wi-Fi or buy a SIM card before they’ll do anything useful. Oh sure, Vinci can do many of the things your phone can, but I guarantee you’d rather do them on your phone.
And then there’s Bragi’s new cans, unimaginatively called The Headphone. These Bluetooth headphones work beautifully, and the coin-sized buds nestle comfortably into your ears. They do everything a smart headphone should, and what no smartphone can: overlay real-world and digital audio, provide hands-free access to Siri, and change songs with two clicks of the button on the right earbud. They don’t attempt to redesign Spotify, or help you buy flowers.
Bragi once had ambitions akin to Vinci’s, and its last product, an ear-computer, offered internal storage and fitness tracking and all manner of geekery. You could learn Bragi’s crazy gestures and endure its bugs, and do many things right there on your headphones. But the experience was complicated and unpleasant, and, worse, the headphones were crap. The Headphones are simpler, offer superior Bluetooth connectivity, and cleverly complement—not supplant—your phone. It’s the same story with Apple’s AirPods and Doppler’s Here Ones. All of these devices rely on your phone for an internet connection, voice-assistant, and most of their interface. The Vincis, on the other hand, don’t care whether your phone’s in your pocket or a lake somewhere.
This is, of course, precisely the point. “Vinci is a standalone device,” according to its Kickstarter page, “so there’s no need to connect to or search your mobile phone. Enjoy total freedom when jogging, traveling, or commuting to work.” A lot of new gadgets promote themselves this way. Samsung’s LTE-enabled Gear S smartwatch is particularly to the point: its tagline is “Leave your phone at home.” Wear a Gear S and you can take calls, send texts, type on a full-size keyboard. You never need pick up your iPhone again.
That’s crazy talk. What’s more, it’s a solution in search of a problem. No one wants to leave their phone at home. People are so afraid of being without their phone that there’s even a word for it: Nomophobia. One study found people check their phones an average of 150 times a day. Another found that 71 percent of users sleep within arm’s reach of the damn thing. Hell, forcing yourself to spend a day or three without your phone is considered a cleanse, even a form of therapy. You can argue it shouldn’t be this way, but it is this way. People want to spend less time with their head in their phone, but nobody’s arguing for a world without smartphones.
One way to think about what’s happening in tech right now is that the smartphones monstrous success has created an equally robust industry in smartphone components. “Sensors are a commodity,” says venture-capitalist Benedict Evans. “The iPhone has 200 different suppliers with 800 different factories. All of them are just commodities.” The only thing more ubiquitous than smartphones are the parts needed to make them, which has driven the price of them effectively to zero. And so anyone with even a half-baked idea for a connected device can walk into any Shenzhen electronics fair and grab every sensor, camera, processor, and radio you need out of a bin. “Anyone can make a camera,” Evans says. “That’s trivial. The point is, how do you make it useful?”
And that’s where the problem lies. The quickest way to lose to the iPhone is to try replacing the iPhone. The way to make something useful to make it do something new, something that people can’t already do better with the device in their pocket right now. Smartwatches can be useful, for people who need notifications or really quick-glance information. Snap’s Spectacles eliminate the friction from taking pictures without trying to stick a photo-editing app on your face. The best “smart” TVs are the Chromecast- and Airplay-enabled ones, which you control with your phone. Mobile-based virtual reality is a hint to what else is possible, as are augmented-reality systems like Project Tango. There will be more things like these, and many no one has imagined yet. They all have one thing in common: they make your phone better without trying to replace it.
This is good news to all you gadget makers. Before long, six freaking billion people will have an internet connection, secure ID, electronic payments, a microphone, and camera in their pocket. You don’t have to build that stuff! Instead of trying to save us from our phones, you can use our phones to make our lives better.