One of the most famous tech-related commentaries expressed in the past 10 years is Steve Jobs’s declaration of the "post-PC era." While the Apple founder's quote in early June of 2010 referred specifically to the revolution that the iPad was expected to bring, the phrase has evolved into a nearly universal commentary about transitions in the tech market.
As Jobs himself pointed out, the comment was not meant to imply that PCs were going away (although many did interpret it that way), but that they would take on a more specialized role—as trucks do in the overall world of transportation, he said. Using that same logic, I believe it’s time to acknowledge that we’re now also in a "post-tablet" and even a "post-smartphone" era.
I argue that we’re entering a "post-device" era.
Jobs’s comments were justified because at the time PC growth was slowing and further declines were predicted. In fact, overall worldwide PC market shipments peaked in the fourth quarter of 2011 and have slowly declined ever since.
The same thing has happened to tablets. While some naively predicted that tablets would one day replace PCs, the worldwide tablet market never reached the same level as PCs, and with very few exceptions, tablets never became the general purpose computing device that many envisioned. Instead, worldwide tablet shipments peaked in the fourth quarter of 2013—just two years after PCs did—and have slowly declined ever since.
Now, I believe we’re seeing the same phenomenon occur in the world of smartphones. While it’s too early to be certain—it’ll probably take 12-18 months before we know for sure—I believe worldwide smartphone shipments probably peaked in the fourth quarter of 2015. Again, two years after the previous hot category (tablets).
It’s not just me either. More and more market indicators—including lower than expected sales and relatively gloomy forecasts from component makers, device builders, and the phone brands themselves—suggest that we've already hit "peak smartphone."
As with PCs and tablets, this doesn’t mean smartphones are going away—far from it. In many parts of the world, smartphones have become a more general purpose computing device for a larger segment of the population than PCs and tablets combined. But it’s also becoming increasingly clear to me that smartphones—with their millions of different platform-specific, function-specific mobile apps—aren't the future of personal computing.
And there is no obvious successor to the smartphone on the horizon. Yes, there are some important new categories coming, but none have the potential to reshape the computing landscape (or reach the hundreds of millions in annual shipment levels) as PCs, tablets, and smartphones have done. The Wearable Era? I don’t think so. The Era of VR and AR? Intriguing, but not likely, at least not soon. Even smart, connected, and autonomous cars, though they’re bound to be very important, probably won’t trigger a transition of the magnitude that a "Jobsian era change" implies.
Instead, the future of computing seems to be about a set of platform and device-independent services. Specifically, voice-based interactions, driven by large installations of cloud-based servers running deep learning-based algorithms are what’s hot these days. This kind of computing model doesn’t necessarily need the kind of local horsepower that traditional computing devices have had. Indeed, these types of services can be accessed by the simplest of devices, with little more than an audio input, an audio output, and a wireless connection. Obviously, not everything that people want to do with intelligent devices can be achieved with this model, but the ability to have information delivered—and actions taken—by simply speaking does suggest an exciting new era that’s less dependent on traditional devices.
The implications of this shift are profound. For a company like Apple, being the premier device maker in the post- device era is a sort of dystopian nightmare, where the company’s impressive abilities to generate better and better devices will be appreciated by a decreasing number of customers. There’s a reason the company has been so focused on services recently (though counting an app sale on the iTunes store as a service, as they currently do, doesn’t really seem to fit the services-focused world toward which I believe we are headed).
As for other hardware makers, the challenges are even more intense. They'll battle over existing (and even future) device categories, but that’s a tough situation to be in. Creating, purchasing and/or partnering for services that can be leveraged across multiple devices will be important for long-time survival and success.
As with the other transitions, the move to a post-device, services-led era won't mean the end for traditional devices. They're needed to deliver the services, after all. Still, device-makers will need to evolve the way they think to survive and thrive in the coming era. The transition is bound to create both unexpected challenges and real opportunities.
Bob O’Donnell is the president and chief analyst of TECHnalysis Research, LLC a market research firm that provides strategic consulting and market research services to the technology industry and professional financial community. You can follow him on Twitter @bobodtech.