The Death of the Smartphone
Aug 30, 2011 5:00 AM PT
Smartphones and tablets might be the current hot technology, but history says it's all just another fad. Twenty years from now, almost nobody will own either device. Seems unbelievable, but the same technology that makes them hot today will make them not tomorrow. If this sounds ridiculous, consider what happened to another "must-have" technology that almost nobody uses any more: the fax machine.
Back in 1991, the Baby Bells were predicting an explosion of landlines and a corresponding shortage of phone numbers because "everyone will need a fax machine." Phone companies offered to lease fax machines for "only (US)$60 a month on a three-year contract." (Sound familiar?) Newspapers were offering early faxes of their main stories to subscribers for a buck a day. Every office supply store had shelf after shelf of fax machines for home and office use.
All those dreams got trashed by the Internet and cheap computers. Email attachments killed the fax machine boom. Today a fax "machine" is a $1 chip in a laptop, and like the modem chip, nobody even bothers to configure it. Faxing the newspaper? Newspapers are dropping like old news, and paywalls are mostly money-losers. Even those cries of "mom, we need a second line for the Internet" are just a dim memory. Instead of two, three or four landlines, many homes now have none. Indeed, many existing "landlines" are actually VoIP phones.
Holding On for Dear Life
The problem facing the telcos is that they're in the phone business, not the "find the best way for people to communicate and give it to them at a competitive price" business. Their product is access to the telephone network. Worse, their entire business model hinges on an archaism -- the 10-digit phone number monopoly. People increasingly don't use phone numbers to contact each other, and the telcos are at risk of becoming just another data pipe for when you're not near a WiFi connection.
Fax machines are just one of many examples of the future not turning out the way the telcos envisioned it. "Sure-thing" premium services like video calling never saw beyond limited use -- too expensive, and people were not willing to shell out $600 for a videophone, plus the extra monthly charges -- not when there was almost nobody to talk to on the phone network. Now it's too late. You can have your "videophone of the future" experience via Skype, Google Talk or Google+ Hangouts at no extra charge.
Also dying is the business model of locking customers into long-term contracts by financing expensive mobile phones. Unlocked Android smartphones are going for less than $200 with no contract, and LG makes a nice $60 flip-phone.
Rise of the Smart Network
Today the same technology that lets phone companies move voice calls cheaply over the Internet also directly competes with them. What keeps phone subscribers on the hook are inertia (the "phone number" habit), lower prices, and increasing services -- all of which explain why I'm paying less for a phone with unlimited calling across the country today than I was for local service 20 years ago.
The clock is ticking ... and IPv6 will be the second-to-last step in our journey to a phone-free future, where every device has its own unique "phone number" and the network has enough smarts to locate you wherever you are, routing all communications to the nearest device, whether it's a TV, car, public security camera, or the active display on the shopping cart at the mall.
Smartphones and Tablets in 2031?
Let's go 20 years in the future. Pretty much every electronic device can interact with your video SPEKZ, which can be anything from a pair of plain-jane NokiaSofts to the latest cool shades from Apple. Cars, streetlight surveillance cams, water meters, televisions, and even your clock radio are all talking to each other -- and your SPEKZ are piggybacking on their data streams. There's not a single laptop, desktop, smartphone or tablet computer in sight.
It's an amazingly seamless experience. The tiny twin cams on your SPEKZ let you share what you see with your friends and stream a copy to your home server. Your watch and charm bracelet contain sensors to detect your wrist movements and the muscles and tendons of your fingers flexing, all descended from Nintendo WiiMote technology.
Of course, since most men would be about as likely to wear a charm bracelet as they would a pink shirt (some things haven't changed), they can also sub-vocalize emails and use eye-tracking technology to make selections "just like a fighter pilot!" You type on your SPEKZ virtual keypad and pick from menus and icons floating in 3D before your eyes.
Passwords? "What's a password, mom?" Instead, your watchface contains a small camera that does both facial and fingerprint identification as well as other biometrics, and your SPEKZ do retinal, iris and voice ID.
It's a safer, more polite world. The latest Amber Alert system allows people to opt in to automatically search the last few minutes of their SPEKZ data stream against a possible match. Road rage is also much less frequent, and not only because most cars are driving themselves. People even stoop and scoop because other fed-up dog owners forward SPEKZ videos of the culprits caught in the act to the city and post them on the Net.
SPEKZ systems are also saving lives. Before SPEKZ, 20 percent of all heart attacks went undetected. Now, biometric watchbands and ubiquitous WiFi detect heart attacks, heat strokes and hypothermia earlier, and your SPEKZ alert medical services even when you can't.
How Do We Get From Here to There?
The telcos and ISPs will continue to try to oppose ubiquitous free WiFi mesh networks, just like they're dragging their feet on implementing IPv6, but competition and public safety concerns will trump their increasingly weakened lobby.
With both phones and their phone network monopolies long gone, carriers will have to settle for being sellers of wireless bandwidth in areas without regular WiFi coverage, and operators of commodity infrastructure.