In the early days of cellular technology, a phone’s make and model would indicate vastly varying appearance and features from one device to another; burnt orange phones that flip horizontally to reveal a keyboard, razor-thin flip phones with brushed aluminum exteriors, rectangular Blackberries with their trackball and keyboard face. Nowadays, that’s not quite the case. A walk through the aisles of any phone vendor will reveal black, glass-faced rectangles with few buttons adorning the bottom of the facade, regardless of make or model. It will inevitably be running iterations of either iOS or Android operating systems. In both look and function, there wouldn’t really be that much of a difference between them, leading some to resolve that smartphone innovation is dead.
The closest thing we’ve really seen to innovation in smartphones lately has been the modular smartphone. With these devices, you can essentially “mod” your phone in any way that you want by snapping on an additional gizmo that will provide a better camera or a higher capacity battery, for example. Google was originally going to pioneer this potentially revolutionary new design with Project Aria — until they didn’t. Christina Warren, writing for Gizmodo, explains:
“It makes for a great demo but the broader goal itself of a modular phone seems to be completely at odds with the way modern gadgets are built. Users want simplicity. They want to go to a store and buy a phone that just works, with everything in one piece.”
Still, while people like Warren think that modular design is doomed to fail, that hasn’t stopped Phonebloks from introducing the “Blocks” modular smartwatch. JC Torres, writing for Slash Gear, mentions that, with these modular smartwatches, you’re swapping out parts of the strap (as opposed to phone where you’re actually swapping out the camera, etc.).
“Currently, there are only six available modules… an environment sensor, a heart rate monitor, GPS, an LED light, a programmable smart button, and, perhaps what will be everyone’s favorite, an extra battery,” writes Torres. “The base Blocks smartwatch alone costs $259, which only provides the most common functionality you’d find in smartwatches today, sans GPS. Each module cost an additional $35, bringing the total up to $469 if you want all six.”
The Age of Wearables
Whether modular design ever picks up is really anybody’s guess, but the wearable age is here and it’s growing. No, Google Glass never really took off, and portable VR is still in its infancy, but these technologies are slowly gaining a foothold alongside smartwatches, and they are even being applied to clothing.
“It may sound like something out of a science fiction movie, but smart apparel is becoming the next big thing in the clothing industry,” write the experts at Amsterdam Printing. “It could be a few more years before these high-tech wearables enter the promotional apparel space, but the “future-chic” trend has already arrived.”
While there are plenty of frills that surround wearables, modular or fabric-based, there are essentially two core features that tie them all together: wireless connectivity and GPS. In 1999, Casio built the first watch with built-in GPS, weighing in at 5.2 oz. and costing between $500 and $600, according to Ohio University’s “Evolution of Portable GPS” infographic. It took 15 years before Sony would release the Smartwatch 3 SWR50 in 2014, the first smartwatch to support offline music and GPS — all at half the cost and less than half the weight.
Nevertheless, GPS and wireless innovations such as heart rate monitors that send data wirelessly, have been enough to spur massive interest in fitness/health and wellness trackers. According to Arizona State University’s online resources, 96 percent of people that use these health apps believe they improve quality of life in six unique ways:
- Encouragement of healthy behaviors
- Reminders for medication and doctor’s instructions
- Accurate records of diet, exercise, and condition monitoring
- Lifestyle analysis
- Easily available educational tools for patients and professionals
- Convenient access to doctors and health care professionals
While the above features are great, one of the greatest, current wearable innovations comes in the form of early disease detection. The George Washington University’s School of Business’s online healthcare resources also touch on the synergistic healthcare/wearable relationship in their feature article “5 Things You Didn’t Know About Wearable Technologies and Your Health.”
“The Apple Watch may be big news, but the most exciting part about the technology is not the ability to get a text message on your wrist or confirm your Uber car,” they write. “Apple also created a software framework called ResearchKit that is designed to help medical care providers develop applications. Some apps already available can help identify early symptoms of diabetes and heart disease.”
So while innovation in terms of the smartphone itself may be a little bit stale and weak, the wearable periphery is just in its beginning stages and shows a lot of promise.
Software, Features, and 5G Prove Innovative
For our current purposes, it wouldn’t be too far off to say that the innovation in terms of the smartphone proper has come to a standstill — but that doesn’t mean that smartphone innovation as a whole is anything but beginning. Arjun Kharpal, writing for CNBC, explains:
“Yes, smartphones will be dead in five years but not in the sense of being wiped out. Instead, innovation will come from new areas, not hardware, and the way we interact with devices will change,” writes Kharpal. “Right now, we use the phones to send messages, make calls, browse the web and watch things. That’s still going to be the case but the real innovation in the future is going to come from software and a large part of that is about making our devices smarter and more personal. The move is underway and artificial intelligence (AI) assistants such as Apple’s Siri, Amazon’s Alexa and Google Assistant will be at the heart of that.”
Apple’s iPhone X is a great example of how that innovation is already manifesting itself. On the surface, it’s an iPhone — physically, they’ve looked similar since the first iteration — but the new software than enables the Face ID feature isn’t available on any other phone. According to iPhone X’s product specs: “Face ID is enabled by the TrueDepth camera and simple to set up. It projects and analyzes more than 30,000 invisible dots to create a precise depth map of your face.”
Beyond software like Face ID and the physical camera that makes its use possible, the infrastructure that smartphones and wireless devices utilize currently is also undergoing radical transformation. By about 2020, true 5G networks should replace our current 4G system, allowing for greater data access speeds, as well as new types of connections.
“The most common devices that will make use of 5G data will not be smart phones or computers, but small sensors embedded in other objects,” write the experts from the New Jersey Institute of Technology in their piece, “Defining 5G Networks.”
“A good example of this would be a heart-rate monitor embedded in a piece of clothing. Rather than designing a device which would be capable of measuring the heart rate, displaying it, and possibly calculating other data; 5G will allow for devices which can simply sense the user’s heartbeat and directly transmit that data to another device.”
It’s possible then, that with the advent of 5G, wearables like smartwatches won’t need to pair with smartphones to function. At that point, we may see smartphones become thinner and more compact than they already are, perhaps even deviating from the current norm that’s arisen from design stalemate.
All in all, those who deem smartphone innovation dead might as well proclaim “long live smartphone innovation!” Phone designs themselves will likely undergo radical change once we see widespread adoption of 5G networks in 2020, and even between now and then we’ll see wearables stretching their wings and flying to heights we never thought possible before. Once that change occurs, the concept of the smartphone that we recognize now may seem as outdated as the flip phone of yesteryear. The smartphone’s death, if you decide to call it that, will give rise to a phoenix from its ashes — and at that point, we’ll likely be so impressed by the new product that we probably won’t care what it’s called.
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