Barring some massively significant change, the mobile computing industry, at least on the smartphone side, has started to stabilize. Smartphones now represent the majority of phones purchased in the US, and are not far off from being the majority globally. Around 85-90% of the market is split between iOS and Android. While new Android phones, and phone manufacturers, may come and go, Android itself has established a pretty healthy position. What the split is between iOS and Android is still up for grabs, but neither are likely to be unseated.
But what will disrupt the mobile computing world, and the smartphone in particular? While I don’t know what the Next Big Thing will look like (because if I did, I wouldn’t be blabbing about it here, I’d be making it 🙂 ), I can tell you want it won’t look like: what we use today, and recognize as a smartphone. Whatever comes along will still have some familiar features, but it will be different. This is the way industries get disrupted. They don’t get radically changed by something that is “similar”, they get changed by something that is different. Fortunately, history has examples.
Disrupting Transportation and Music
Consider the history of disruptions in transportation. Trains disrupted traditional horse-drawn ground travel (and canal transportation in the northeastern US). Cars disrupted horses. The plane disrupted passenger trains. In each case, the new entrant did familiar things (move stuff, get people from A to B), but they did it in a radically different way. There is nothing in common between a horse and car, beyond the basics of getting a person or load of goods from one place to another. Passenger trains weren’t disrupted by better passenger trains. They were disrupted by a machine that accomplished the same thing (moving many people long distances) using a completely different method (flying instead of travelling on wheels and rails).
Take a more recent example: music distribution and sales. For years, the only change was the storage format: vinyl to cassette to CD. In all cases, though, you either had to dub the music from one format to the other, or you bought the music packaged the way the labels wanted it packaged (singles, albums). The MP3 player and stores like iTunes changed that completely. The MP3 player was an instrumental part of the equation. It meant you could bring a substantial part of your music library (or possibly all of it, depending on the size), not just a subset based on the size of whatever you carried your cassettes or discs in . You could listen to any songs in any order at the push of a button. On-line music sales meant you could buy the individual songs you wanted. You didn’t have to buy a whole album to get one or two songs that were never released as singles. Yes, the music player looked familiar (about the size of the cassette-sized Walkman) and workflow was similar, but the fundamentals were completely different.
Another Technology Disruption Underway
The personal computer industry appears to be in the midst of being disrupted by the tablet. When the iPad was first announced, some analysts likened it to an oversized iPod Touch. But consumers and enterprises have latched onto the device as a smaller and more personal Personal Computer. Granted, it isn’t as easily transportable as a smartphone. But it is easier to deal with on the go compared to a laptop, and while it isn’t as powerful computationally, it has the juice to last for almost an entire day, much more than a conventional low-end notebook computer.
Sure, the iPad and other tablets have similarities to notebooks. They are “computers” in that they share similar types of hardware. You install “apps”, which are basically programs, similar to installing software on your PC. But the rest of the device is very different. The interaction is primarily touch, and a little more effort has to be paid to the user experience, since the screen is smaller and the resources less plentiful.
But What About HTML5-Based Operating Systems?
In some ways, they are a bit ahead of their time, but for the most part, they are simply a variation on the current devices. The apps look and feel more or less the same. They look the same, and the machines emphasize on-board resources for computing, storage and display. To the consumer, they are still very much like the operating systems they currently prefer, in terms of how they ultimately behave. Developers have rejected them, mainly because of their small user base, but partly because they either didn’t offer a native SDK, or were late in coming out with one. Whether it is right or not, the developer communities spoke, and the industry had to listen. WebOS didn’t disrupt tablets or smartphones. The predecessor to the forthcoming Blackberry 10 on the Playbook didn’t disrupt tablets. Both were soundly rejected by consumers, enterprises and developers. The new Firefox OS has been lauded by some as the thing that will set the smartphone world on its ear. Given that the concept has been rejected twice, I’m not sure that this time will be different.
That doesn’t mean that using open, common web-based technologies to build mobile software is wrong. It is just seen as wrong now. I fully expect to see stable, mature and widely-deployed systems that use this metaphor eventually. But it won’t be done with existing web technologies. It will be done with whatever comes next, because that technology will be driven by the new platform, and not by the current legacy platforms that guided us to where we are now.
So What Is Next?
I don’t expect the smartphone disruptor to act much like the smartphones we used today. Sure, it will still “make calls” and allow us to communicate through various channels like e-mail and social media. But the interaction, the conceptual models and paradigms the user sees, and the workflow will be different. The underlying technology will be different too, although it will still share some of the silicon. It may rely more on cloud-computing and distributed resources, assuming we get a more ubiquitous and more economic network to access those resources. It may de-emphasize local power for some things, and farm some of the work out to other systems. That’s just one vision, and it certainly isn’t the only way it can change.
But whatever it is, it won’t be a “better version” of what we have now. That’s not how your disrupt things. Again, passenger trains weren’t disrupted by better trains. They were disrupted by a machine that was powered differently and flew through the air. If you want to displace the current smartphones, you can’t do it by inventing a better smartphone. Don’t invent a better train. Invent an airplane.