“An iPod, a phone, and an Internet communicator. An iPod, a phone… Are you getting it?”
Blame it on Steve Jobs. And Apple.
Ever since that day in 2007 when Jobs showed off the iPhone to a stunned world, smartphones have pretty much hogged the computing center stage as far as the vast majority of us are concerned. The iPhone totally revolutionized the computing industry and the 2010-2014 period was one of the great excitement in the smartphone space. During this period, every hardware and software improvement that took place in smartphones could be genuinely appreciated.
The retina display of the iPhone 4 made smartphone screens look sharper and the difference in quality could be appreciated by any average human. The better processing power of the iPhone 4S was again something that could be genuinely appreciated. Or for that matter, one could see how Siri was jaw-dropping for its time or how the extra real estate provided by the Samsung Galaxy Note improved the functionality of smartphones multiple times and made smartphones with displays of 5.0-inches and above the norm.
But over the past few (two to three) years, excitement for smartphones has largely fizzled out. The jump from full HD to quad HD displays has not produced any notable difference in quality. Bezels are getting smaller but display size and functionality have remained pretty much constant. Even the jump in processing power simply is not useful for the average user – in most circumstances, a Nexus 5X would be just as snappy as the Samsung Galaxy S8. Bixby will not be shipping with the Galaxy S8, but honestly, does anyone even care if it comes or not?
What everyone is now looking forward to is a newer computing platform that becomes just as indispensable as the smartphone. While there are many up and coming gadgets, none of them has had its “iPhone moment” yet.
Take smartwatches and fitness trackers, for example, almost every major tech company has invested in the wearable category in some capacity or the other. But with time, it is becoming increasingly clear that smartwatches would hardly be able to replicate the kind of mainstream success smartphones had. There will surely be some fitness enthusiasts and tech enthusiasts that would find smartwatches exciting but beyond them, their appeal to the general public seems limited. Pebble, which was one of the pioneers of modern day smartwatches got acquired by Fitbit. Google kept delaying the release of Android Wear 2.0, and even the new smartwatches that have released with Android Wear 2.0 on board have hardly won rave reviews. Huawei’s CEO has gone on record to say that he does not see smartwatches having a future. The only companies that seem to be pushing the bar in terms of smartwatches are Apple and Samsung but how far these two tech giants can go on their own remains to be seen. For all intents and purposes, the entire smartwatch category seems to be running out of steam.
Last year there was renewed interest around chatbots but even the uptake and enthusiasm around them has died fairly quickly. Hardly anyone remembers using a Facebook Messenger chatbot, and even Google’s Allo seems to be fizzling out after a lot of initial hype. Considering the mostly robotic responses of most chatbots and their inability to comprehend even basic human commands, it is hardly surprising to see them fading away. A lot of hopes were pinned on chatbots as a new medium of computing but that has yet to materialize.
Voice assistants have had a decent amount of success thanks to Amazon Alexa and the vast numbers of Echo devices Amazon has managed to sell. But while there is a lot of enthusiasm for Alexa, there is as well a general sense of let down when it comes to voice assistants. When Samsung announced that Bixby would not be pre-installed on the Samsung Galaxy S8, there was hardly anyone who actually bothered. Google had initially promised of keeping Google Assistant exclusive to Pixel devices, but later on, when Assistant was rolled out to Marshmallow devices as well, there was hardly any sense of cheer amongst the general crowd. I will be brutal: chances are that 9 out of 10 non-tech people you meet would not even know what Google Assistant is, let alone be happy for its arrival on non-Pixel devices.
AR and VR have a lot of potential but are stuck in a sort of conundrum. Firstly, when it comes to AR, it is still way too expensive for the common person. The Microsoft Holo Lens, while amazing, would take several years to reach a price point where it is affordable for the common man. Magic Leap claims to have some innovative tech but barring its investors, no one has been able to see that tech for themselves.
VR is at a slightly better position than AR in the sense that on an overall basis, it is way more affordable than AR. That said, it has its own conundrum. The best VR experience is achieved over devices like the HTC Vive or the Oculus Rift, which require enormous processing power, which not only makes high-end PCs mandatory but also makes the overall experience a lot more clumsy. There are alternatives like Samsung’s Gear VR or Google’s Day Dream but they simply do not deliver a VR experience that is breath-taking. For AR/VR to become mainstream, they must hit a point where all your require is a pair of normal looking spectacles to transport yourself into another world or project another world onto your real world. Given the current state of technology, such a scenario would probably take years to occur.
The point that I am trying to make is fairly obvious by now. Smartphones, while great, have hit a certain point in their life cycle where the improvement in specs simply does not matter anymore. If someone is not a tech geek, they could use a USD 300 mid-range smartphone and still have a very satisfactory experience out of it. There was a time when improvements in smartphone hardware and software truly made news, but that has long passed in my opinion. Most people are now eagerly waiting for the jump to a newer computing platform, but none of the options right now seem compelling. Or have a legend with a black turtleneck and denim distorting reality to make them appear compelling.
These are dull times indeed for tech.