Apple CEO Tim Cook
One day, not too soon — but still sooner than you think — the smartphone will all but vanish, like beepers and fax machines before it.
Make no mistake, we’re still probably at least a decade away from any kind of meaningful shift away from the smartphone. (And if we’re all cyborgs by 2027, I’ll happily eat my words. Assuming we’re still eating at all, I guess.)
Yet, piece by piece, the groundwork for the eventual demise of the smartphone is being laid by Elon Musk, by Microsoft, by Facebook, by Amazon, and a countless number of startups that still have a part to play.
And, let me tell you: If and when the smartphone does die, that’s when things are going to get really weird for everybody. Not just in terms of individual products, but in terms of how we actually live our everyday lives and maybe our humanity itself.
Here’s a brief look at the slow, ceaseless march towards the death of the smartphone — and what the post-smartphone world is shaping up to look like.
The short term
People think of the iPhone and the smartphones it inspired as revolutionary devices — small enough to carry everywhere, hefty enough to handle an increasingly large number of our daily tasks, and packed full of the right mix cameras and GPS sensors to make apps like Snapchat and Uber uniquely possible.
But consider the smartphone from another perspective. The desktop PC and the laptop are made up of some combination of a mouse, keyboard, and monitor. The smartphone just took that model, shrunk it down, and made the input virtual and touch-based.
So take, for example, the Samsung Galaxy S8, unveiled this week. It’s gorgeous with an amazing bezel-less screen and some real power under the hood. It’s impressive, but it’s more refinement than revolution.
Samsung Galaxy S8Business Insider
Tellingly, though, the Galaxy S8 ships with Bixby, a new virtual assistant that Samsung promises will one day let you control every single feature and app with just your voice. It will also ship with a new version of the Gear VR virtual reality headset, developed in conjunction with Facebook’s Oculus.
And as devices like the Amazon Echo, Sony PlayStation VR, and the Apple Watch continue to enjoy limited but substantial success, expect to see a lot more tech companies large and small taking more gambles and making more experiments on the next big wave in computing interfaces.
The medium term
In the medium-term, all of these various experimental and first-stage technologies are going to start to congeal into something familiar, but bizarre.
Microsoft’s Alex Kipman recently told Business Insider that augmented reality could flat-out replace the smartphone, the TV, and anything else with a screen. There’s not much use for a separate device sitting in your pocket or on your entertainment center, if all your calls, chats, movies, and games are beamed into your eyes and overlaid on the world around you.
Apple’s AirPods keep the Siri virtual assistant in your ears.Hollis Johnson/Business Insider
Meanwhile, gadgetry like the Amazon Echo or Apple’s own AirPods become more and more important in this world. As artificial intelligence systems like Apple’s Siri, Amazon’s Alexa, Samsung’s Bixby, and Microsoft’s Cortana get smarter, there’s going to be a rise not just in talking to computers, but having them talk back.
The promise, though, is a world where real life and technology blend more seamlessly. The major tech companies promise that this future means a world of fewer technological distractions and more balance, as the physical and digital world become the same thing. You decide how you feel about that.
The really crazy future
Still, all those decade-plus investments in the future still rely on gadgetry that you have to wear on you, even if it’s only a pair of glasses. Some of the craziest, most forward-looking, most unpredictable advancements go even further — provided you’re willing to wait a few extra decades, that is.
Assuming the science works — and lots of smart people believe that it will— this is the logical endpoint of the road that smartphones started us on. If smartphones gave us access to information and augmented reality puts that information in front of us when we need it, then putting neural lace in our brains just closes the gap.
Futurist Ray Kurzweil has been predicting our cyborg futures for a long time now.Tech Insider
Musk has said that this is because the rise of artificial intelligence — which underpins a lot of the other technologies, including voice assistants and virtual reality — means that humans are going to have to augment themselves just to keep up with the machines. If you’re really curious about this idea, futurist Ray Kurzweil is the leading voice on the topic.
The idea of man/machine fusion is a terrifying one, with science fiction writers, technologists, and philosophers alike having very good cause to ask what even makes us human in the first place. At the same time, the idea is so new that nobody really knows what this world would look like in practice.
So if and when the smartphone dies, it’ll actually be the end of an era in more ways than one. It’ll be the end of machines that we carry with us passively and the beginning of something that bridges our bodies straight into the ebb and flow of digital information. It’s going to get weird.
And yet, lots of technologists already say that smartphones give us superpowers with access to knowledge, wisdom, and abilities beyond anything nature gave us. In some ways, augmenting the human mind would be the ultimate superpower. Then again, maybe I’m just an optimist.
Sonia Rina Landry is a passionate entrepreneur, speaker, author, and personal development coach. She is an outspoken advocate of the free market economy and has helped countless clients identify their core values, envision and realize goals that resonate with those values. She oversees several businesses online and offline.