Can The Phone Be Reinvented?


The iPhone 5 won't arrive for about six months, but that doesn't stop the rumors and questions from swirling. Will it be as much of a success as the iPhone 4S, which is expected to be a key component in Apple's earning's call next week? Will it be LTE? Will it be liquid metal? Will it be a radical redesign?

Looking around at the state of mobile phones today, from Nokia's and RIM's seemingly inexorable slide into history, to crazy mulitcore battles to try to out-spec rivals and bedazzle consumers with meaningless stats, to Google's broken Android 4 rollout, to patent wars between Samsung and Apple and even to high-powered, glossy pieces of beautiful high-tech engineering like Huawei's P1, one sees plenty of sound and fury, but what does it all signify?

Certainly not a reinvention. Is such a thing still possible?

Just look at the array of phones being spat out by the tens of millions from production lines now. Look at the P1. Look at the iPhone. Look at the possibly leaked and curiously iPhone 4-esque Samsung Galaxy SIII. They're all the same. There are subtle variations, sure, and colors vary (though that's not a real, core difference!) but basically they're all flat glossy screens married to a flat wedge of invisible high-tech magic circuitry. There are sub-genus types, coming with keyboards, but those are looking increasingly jaded. And don't let's talk about "dumbphones," which are basically walking dinosaurs in an era where smartphone Foursquare check-ins can help redefine a neighborhood.

There is no genuine, dramatic innovation here.

Blame Apple, if you like. It boiled the form and function of a smartphone down to its almost ultimate essence...a screen and a barely there frame to hold that screen. You can't even open the case. It's like the black monolith from 2001, a magic mirror into which you cannot really see, but which lets you see yourself...and snap a DailyBooth photo of your expression for the fun of it. Pretty much every phone maker has followed the iPhone format for smartphone design.

But it's not just the physical format of the phone that has gotten boring and predictable. It's the software it runs, from Android to Bada to iOS to Windows. We're all loving these phones and their hundreds of thousands of apps. We pour hours every day into our phones, we use them to snap Instagrams and transform a 500-day old company into a billion-dollar business, we use Facebook so often it's apparently causing us to become less social in real life (or maybe not). We learn about the news, faux celebrity "news," and even real meaningful news like the death of a friend through the news tickers, social networks, and SMS-IM apps our phones run. We're using our phones to track and improve our health, to help banish graffiti from Toronto, to do...pretty much everything.

But that's not good. We're addicted, desperate for our phones to interact with us, and they just don't. How often have you dialed through your phone's pages of app icons looking for one you can click on that'll "reward" you with a dose of feedback? Zipping from Instagram to Facebook to Twitter, looking for someone to "like" you or message you or to amaze you with a tastefully retro photo of the beautiful place where they are and you're not?

Not all of this activity is necessarily enabling, or enriching or enhancing our lives. Bits of it are, sure. But in general these valuable grains of truth or clarity or inspiration are all stuff you have to hunt down, find, enable the right app to access the right data feed, and so on. It demands your action to deliver reaction. When, we wonder, will our phones software be smart enough to actually engage with us?

That's the sort of thing we see in sci-fi. A device, sensitive to your needs, wishes, preferences, and foibles, that actively—and under its own volition—pings for your attention with an alert that says (even perhaps audibly): "You know, you read that book last week by Terry Pratchett? He's appearing on a BBC radio show in five minutes to talk about the book. Would you like to listen to it? I can save it for later if you like." Or what about a phone that, without you having to tell it to, routes you past a street festival you didn't know about, just two blocks off your usual walk to work?

And, on the flip side, how about a phone that knows when its best to not flood you with information, which keeps silent when you've got a meeting scheduled or you're chatting in person with a friend, or which prompts you with an "are you sure you want to check Facebook again?" message when you fumble for it just before you lay your head on the pillow at night? Or a phone that knows you hate advertising of nearly every flavor, so it suppresses them, but you do welcome the occasional early warning of a new film due out in your favorite genre? 

In short, how about a smartphone that, through some gestalt trick of the sum of all its interactive apps, actually engages with you, instead of merely delivering data in an endless stream on its glowing screen? Siri-meets-Watson-and-a-benevolent-HAL, if you like. It may be on the edge of the possible, but someone's got to be working on that technology. Stick it in a super-smartphone that looks like none of the current crop of clones, and we'd all actively give it even more personal information than we already jam into Facebook or Google's databanks because instead of demanding our active attention, and thus accidentally dominating our daily lives, it would actively benefit them.

Chat about this piece with Kit Eaton on Twitter and Fast Company too.

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  • Harry Järn

    Technologies for proactive & contextual services (the likes mentioned in the article) already excists. We don't need new generation of smartphones to produce them, on the contrary many of the aspects of these services can be delivered through the ancient invention called SMS: particularly useful for simple alerts, like the one on street festival. The intelligence of the system is not in the terminals themselves, but in the "core".

    What we need is the enabling service platform, together with integrated processes and possibility to escalate: like in your example of street festival, you may want to snap that info further to social media & ask for advice/opinion, or you may want to contact call center to ask for further details in person.

    These are already in the works. We haven't seen the end of the evolution of mobile services yet: mobile apps are not the end of the line, intelligent services go beyond these passive single purpose innovations. This may also mean substantial changes in the overall industry landscape: power shift from OS driven & dum bit pipe (carriers) supported system to something where the service providers capture new revenues & value, OS is more neutral and carriers have a new (read: last) chance of becoming something else than dum bit pipes.

  • Full Name

    How about an app or website or some system that will tell you what you need for what you want to do when you want to do it? My friends don't have all the answers. The people that know aren't following me.

  • Full Name

    Example. I want to start a start-up. What do I have to know? What would be good to know when I'm choosing platform? Someone already has the experience. The information just isn't organized in one place to look up when you need. You have to search if you know what to search for. Answers are spread and repeated among many books about the subject.

  • Kit Eaton

    Fascinating idea. A kind of smarter Wolfram Alpha, which is also a little intuitive? I like it.

  • Paul Pierce

    In the future, people will look back at our device-centric society like we look back on our old Iomega Jaz drives. In the future, all the phones, mobile devices, tablets, headsets, Google glasses, etc. will be gone.

    In the future, the device is YOU.

    All the hardware and software that keeps you connected with others, the world around you, and even your own body, desires and past experiences, will be inside you. You won't be talking out loud in public to Siri or madly tapping on some device in your hand like an accountant at tax time. Whatever you want or want to do, you'll think it. And as a result, what you want will come to you as naturally as a thought in your head, a vision before your eyes or a sound to your ears.

    In the future, there will be no GUI (graphical user interface) or VUI (voice user interface). Our MUI (mental user interface) will let us order food, say hello to a distant friend, buy anything we hear or see, play a game, schedule a meeting, watch a movie, listen to music, ask a question and retrieve our past experiences...all with a thought.

  • Anselmo Rosa

    Brave article. I love tech to the point my colleagues call me ROBOT. I do spend 6 hours on a computer every day at work, maybe 2 hours a day on my tablet reading and entertaining my self. My smartphone, a Nokia 5800, Symbian based is outdated, so I use it mostly to listen music, GPS navigation, texting, to make videos, take pictures and to phone calls, spending less then 2 hours a week on it.

    I have gmail, youtube, dropbox, facebook, 4shared, twitter (which I don't use much) and pinterest accounts. I also spend 6 hours weekly at my favourite TV shows and at weekends I probably watch a movie or two. Despite the fact I have four kids and spend about 20 hours a week with/for them, I can say that I am very much connected. But I can also say that I don't feel that compelling desire to check my facebook all the time. Machines feel natural for me. And I think that a process to make machines more human has already started.

    The fact is we are transforming ourselves into cyborgs, because all these electronic and online stuff are already integrated into our minds. I share this article's perspective: electronic interaction is indeed the next revolution. As predicted by Sci-Fi. I believe that in the next decades a more like Asimov's envisioned future will come to reality. I believe so because science fiction invented the smartphone and the tablet: Kirk's communicator and Picard's tab on Star Trek appeared many years before their invention. So, can the phone be reinvented? Sure. And it will.

  • Kit Eaton

    Thanks! Glad you liked it. Gentle cyborg-ization is indeed the sort of thing I'm hinting at here, but mainly in the form of a personal communications device that actually adds to your life, volunteering new things and actions, rather than just eating your time.