Feature Story

Will The Smartphone Become Obsolete?

by Kerry Doyle

A look at how cloud technology may change the future of mobile handsets.

In the current mobile manufacturing competition, device makers strive to give users a distinct product with unique features. So is it possible to imagine a common, ubiquitous device? That is, a mobile handset virtually the same as every other? Distinguished not by ‘bells & whistles' and physical features, but by its cloud-based, personalized profile, services & apps delivered to the user via SaaS?

#87: Will The Smartphone Become Obsolete? by The Network Podcast

Such a concept is interesting to consider, because some analysts believe that's the future for mobile handsets. Placing aside the recent patent wars between Samsung, Apple, and by extension, Google, it's clear that smartphone innovation has leveled. Critics contend that there is only so much device innovation, until what's truly unique are the services delivered to that device. For example, will a flexible screen or a less obtrusive fingerprint scanner truly enhance my mobile experience further?

By contrast, in the 1960s ‘dumb' terminals represented an early mainstay of mainframe computing. Before the introduction of personal PCs, users dialed in to a time-shared system, requested application access and all processing occurred on the mainframe.  Granted, the cloud makes possible a level of computing, volume and scalability virtually unimaginable back then. But is the model really that different?

Current trends, such as Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) and near 24/7 availability, indicate the shrinking divide between work and home. The attraction of a single, generic device that provides both leisure and work functions is obvious. Such a model increases security (via cloud-based user authentication), sandboxes work and personal interactions while offering high performance. What more could a user ask for?

As it stands today, high smartphone obsolescence and the introduction of 60-70 new models per year is simply unsustainable, both commercially and environmentally. A report by Recon Analytics found that the average smartphone lifespan in the U.S. is 21.7 months. The notion of a long-term, composite mobile phone may seem remote, according to some industry watchers. However, Phonebloks and WandUlar represent two initiatives that have garnered support for a modular smartphone approach based on easily available, freely assembled components.

According to the Cisco Visual Networking Index (VNI) which tracks IP networking trends, mobile data traffic will account for 12% of global fixed and mobile data traffic by 2018, up from 3% in 2013.  Globally, mobile data traffic by 2018 will be equivalent to 417x the volume of global mobile traffic ten years earlier (in 2008).  An increased reliance on the cloud as we move from a product- to services-based model is one indicator that the smartphone may be a bridging technology. The next stage? At the 2014 Consumer Electrics Show in Las Vegas, wearable devices and the Internet of Everything were the hot items.

As if to emphasize this trend, Google has made recent moves that should attract attention. The company not only sold the hardware manufacturer Motorola to Lenovo, it recently acquired Nest, a company forging the way with wireless, sensor-based intelligence. By gradually extending the home-based concept of behaviorally smart, networked devices to other vertical industries, Google is moving to the next level of innovation.

Imagine a sensor-embedded environment that has learned to cater to user needs based on previous behavior, hand gestures and voice activation. Now imagine a wearable, specialized device that enables you to do things more efficiently and effectively than a smartphone, such as conversing, browsing, making purchases or even playing games. While there may be bumps along the way (i.e., the recent Nest design snafu), such a reality is conceivable.

Extending such a concept even further to other industries (healthcare, energy, manufacturing, etc.) represents a true paradigm shift. Parallel developments in related areas support such a change. These include Software Defined Networking (SDN), nanotechnology, and multi-core processing. For example, while SDN may be seen as a nascent even embryonic trend, a number of major companies are committing substantial resources to achieving such capabilities.

Moreover, while Google sold Motorola, it retained Moto, the Advanced Technology and Projects group responsible for Project Ara. Recognizing the diminishing returns related to producing new smartphone models, Project Ara focuses on making available highly modular smartphones. On the Project Ara website, the company states its goal is to "create a third-party developer ecosystem, lower the barrier to entry, increase the pace of innovation and substantially compress development timelines" for modular devices.

Personal attachment to smartphones is considerable and its obsolescence may be hard to imagine, controversial, and even unwelcome. However, it may be useful to keep in mind the observation of management theorist Peter Drucker who said the most dangerous competitor is the one you can't see.

While it may be difficult to conceive transitioning to a generic, modular smartphone, the question to ask is: Can we afford not to? For some, it may also be comforting to note that new technology doesn't completely erase old technology. 


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