Can The Phone Be Reinvented?

It’s about time.



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.


About the author

I'm covering the science/tech/generally-exciting-and-innovative beat for Fast Company. Follow me on Twitter, or Google+ and you'll hear tons of interesting stuff, I promise. I've also got a PhD, and worked in such roles as professional scientist and theater technician...thankfully avoiding jobs like bodyguard and chicken shed-cleaner (bonus points if you get that reference!)