We’re now coming up to nine years since the launch of the iPhone kicked off the smartphone revolution, and some of the first phases are over – Apple and Google both won, mostly, Facebook made the transition, mostly, and it’s now clear that mobile is the future of technology and of the internet. But within that, there are a huge range of different themes and issues, many of which are still pretty unsettled.
In this post, then, I outline what I think are the 16 topics to think about within the current generation, outline the key issues for each of them, and then link to the post I’ve written in the last year or so that try to understand them. In January, I’ll dig into some of the themes for the future – VR, AR, drones and AI, but this is where we are today.
1: Mobile is the new central ecosystem of tech
Each new generation of technology – each new ecosystem – is a step-change in scale, and that new scale makes it the centre of innovation and investment in hardware, software and company creation. The mobile ecosystem, now, is heading towards perhaps 10x the scale of the PC industry, and mobile is not just a new thing or a big thing, but that new generation, whose scale makes it the new centre of gravity of the tech industry. Almost everything else will orbit around it.
2: Mobile is the internet
We should stop talking about ‘mobile’ internet and ‘desktop’ internet – it’s like talking about ‘colour’ TV, as opposed to black and white TV. We have a mental mode, left over from feature phones, that ‘mobile’ means limited devices that are only used walking around. But actually, smartphones are mostly used when you’re sitting down next to a laptop, not ‘mobile’, and their capabilities make them much more sophisticated as internet platforms than the PC. Really, it’s the PC that has the limited, cut-down version of the internet.
3: Mobile isn’t about small screens and PCs aren’t about keyboards – mobile means an ecosystem and that ecosystem will swallow ‘PCs’
When we say ‘mobile’ we don’t mean mobile, just as when we said ‘PCs’ we didn’t mean ‘personal’. ‘Mobile’ isn’t about the screen size or keyboard or location or use. Rather, the ecosystem of ARM, iOS and Android, with 10x the scale of ‘Wintel’, will become the new centre of gravity throughout computing. This means that ‘mobile’ devices will take over more and more of what we use ‘PCs’ for, gaining larger screens and keyboards, sometimes, and more and more powerful software, all driven by the irresistible force of a much larger ecosystem, which will suck in all of the investment and innovation.
4: The future of productivity
Will you always need a mouse and keyboard and Excel or Powerpoint for ‘real work’? Probably not – those will linger on for a long time for tens of millions of core users, but not the other billions – computing and productivity has changed radically before and will change again. Big screens will last, for some, and maybe keyboards, for some, but all the software will change. It will move to the cloud, and onto mobile devices (with large or small screens), and be reshaped by them. The core question – is typing, or making presentations, actually your job, or just a tool you use to get your actual job done? What matters is the connective tissue of a company – the verbs that move things along. Those can be done in new ways.
5: Microsoft’s capitulation
Microsoft missed the shift to the new platform. Xbox is non-core, Windows Mobile is on life support, Windows 10 is a good prop for the legacy business that can slow but not prevent this change, and Satya Nadella has explicitly stated that the decades-old strategy of ‘Windows Everywhere’ – of trying to be the universal platform – is over. That doesn’t remotely mean that Microsoft is dead, but it has to work out how to use the cash and market position of the old monopolies to help it build new businesses. That’s a big change from the past, where everything was about building Windows and Office. But it’s not quite clear what those new businesses will look like – Microsoft has to try to reinvent the connective tissue of the enterprise.
6: Apple & Google both won, but it’s complicated
The mobile generation is unusual in that we seem to have two winners – both Apple and Google won, in different ways. Conventionally, the bigger ecosystem wins and sucks all activity into its orbit, but Apple’s ecosystem has perhaps 800m active users, far larger than in previous generations, and has perhaps half of global mobile browsing and two thirds or more of app store revenue (a good proxy for overall economic activity). Android has more users but Apple has more of the ‘best’ users (from a developers’ perspective).
Indeed, one can also ask whether Google rather than Apple has a problem – Google’s existential need is reach, and both iOS and Android give it reach, but the reach it has on iOS is limited by what Apple will allow. And less than a quarter of iPhone users have bothered to install Google Maps. Conversely, Apple’s weakness in cloud services and AI may end up becoming an equivalent strategic problem over time.
7: Search and discovery
The internet makes it possible to get anything you’ve ever heard of, but also makes it impossible to have heard of everything. It allows anyone to be heard, but how do people hear of you? We started with browsing, and that didn’t scale to the internet, and then we moved to search, but search can only give you what you already knew you wanted. In the past, print and retail showed us what there was but also gave us a filter – now both the filter and the demand generation are gone. So, who has the traffic, and where do they send it? How do AI, or discovery, or the platforms themselves fit into this? How much curation, and where? How do you get users?
8: Apps and the web
There’s an involved, technical, and (for people like me) fascinating conversation in tech about smartphone apps and the web – what can each do, how discovery works, how they interplay, what Google plans with Chrome, whether the web will take over as the dominant form … and so on. But for an actual brand, developer or publisher wondering if they should do an app or a website, the calculation is much simpler and less technical: ‘Do people want to put your icon on their home screen?’
9: Post Netscape, post PageRank, looking for the next run-time
For 15 years the internet was a monolith: web browser + mouse + keyboard. There were options, but for most normal consumers the web and the internet were practically the same thing. The smartphone broke that apart, but we haven’t settled on a new model. Competition between Apple and Google, with Facebook trying to butt in, plus all the unrealised possibilities of a new medium, means the interaction models of mobile keep changing. Really, we’re looking for a new run-time – a new way, after the web and native apps, to build services. That might be Siri or Now or messaging or maps or notifications or something else again. But the underlying aim is to construct a new search and discovery model – a new way, different from the web or app stores, to get users.
10: Messaging as a platform, and a way to get customers
A big part of this hunt for a new runtime, and a new discovery layer, is messaging. Facebook almost built this on the desktop and WeChat has managed to build it on mobile in China. By turning messaging into a development environment, you create an alternative to the web or the app store, but without the binary installation problem of apps (‘is it installed or not?’) and with your own new discovery and user acquisition platform. An important strand of this is unbundling services – you unbundle content from apps into messaging (or notifications) and you also unbundle messages from websites (via email or apps) into your messaging platform, turning it into the new connective tissue of your phone. At least, that’s the idea.
Facebook and a few others want to do this outside China, but haven’t managed yet (and building layers onto the OS is tough for anyone other than the OS owner), and Apple and Google are also pondering how to take this forward.
See also this primer on WeChat from my colleague Connie Chan
11: The unclear future of Android and the OEM world
Android won the handset market outside of Apple, but it’s not quite clear what that means. Attempts to make a straight ‘fork’ of Android (e.g. Kindle Fire) fail on lack of access to Google’s services, but that doesn’t mean no one can create a mostly non-Google experience – this is what Xiaomi and its imitators are doing and what Cyanogen is enabling as well. And this matters, because the OS, more and more, is a route to discovery of services – if you control the OS you can shape what people do, far more than you could on the desktop web.
12: Internet of Things
Our grandparents could have told you how many electric motors they owned – there was one in the car, one in the fridge and so on, and they owned maybe a dozen. In the same way, we know roughly how many devices we own with a network connection, and, again, our children won’t. Many of those use cases will seem silly to us, just as our grandparents would laugh at the idea of a button to lower a car window, but the sheer range and cheapness of sensors and components, mostly coming out of the smartphone supply chain, will make them ubiquitous and invisible – we’ll forget about them just as we’ve forgotten about electric motors.
This means, I think, that talk of standards for IoT misses the point – ‘connected to a network’ is not any more a category’ than ‘contains a motor’, and there will be many different platforms and standards. More important is that, especially in the enterprise, this explosion in sensors means an explosion in data – we’ll know far more about far more, and that allows fundamental system redesign.
The move to electric and the move (if and when) to autonomous, self-driving cars fundamentally change what a car is, but also what the whole automotive system might look like. Electricity changes the mechanical complexity of cars and hence changes who might build them and what they might look like. Autonomy and on-demand services change who buys them, meaning the buying criteria will be different. But they could also change the urban landscape just as much as cars themselves did – what do mass-market retail or restaurants look like if no-one needs to park?
14: TV and the living room
The tech industry spent a quarter-century trying to get to the TV set to take it online – that was going to be the mass-market computer. Now it looks like this might finally be happening, but it’s almost a side-show – Microsoft declares Xbox is no longer a strategic asset, TVs are accessories to the smartphone, and it’s the smartphone, not the TV or PC, that delivered the computing revolution and took computing into the living room.
Watches are maybe the most puzzling satellite in the smartphone solar system. In theory they should be everything – the aim of every scifi fantasy – yet today it’s easy to dismiss them as pointless toys. To me, they’re an accessory – a useful and pleasing adjunct to your smartphone, but they’re still very early.
16: Finally, we are not our users
The future is unevenly distributed, but so is understanding and interest in it. In the tech industry we’re comfortable living with the latest things and presume that everyone else does. But really, these services are accessories and enablers of people’s lives, and they look at them differently for what they can do for them. So most iPhone users don’t use Google Maps, most people don’t use a calendar at all, and audio cassettes are making a comeback, as normal people take ownership of the tech in their lives and shape it to their needs.
Check out the companion podcast below.