The future is a smarter world of dumber devices

With smartphones in all of our pockets, it’s easy to laugh at Thomas Watson’s reputed remark that “there is a world market for about five computers.” But what if he was off by only four computers instead of four billion?

In the early 2000s, we lived in an era of expensive storage and slow connectivity. Those of us tasked with predicting the future faced a dilemma: Would processing and storage get so cheap that each and every device could store everything ever made, or would connectivity become so robust and far-reaching that everything would be stored remotely.

The “future” since that time has been a little bit of both. We settled on what became acceptable — a compromise of local and cloud-based storage.

As we look around today, we still see this battle being waged — yet, if anything, it’s tipping away from devices and into the cloud. Smartphones clearly continue to get more sophisticated, but the pace of improvements is far from accelerating and, increasingly, the smartness is either in the software built for the device, the platforms on the device or the actual total outsourcing of intelligence to the AI of Google Now, Cortana or Siri.

We’re actually seeing the proliferation of surprisingly simple machines, devices like the Amazon Echo or Google Home are effectively just microphones, speakers and a big tube to produce bass, and connectivity to the cloud. The cloud is where all the smartness lies and where the work is done. Will self-driving cars be making all decisions locally, assessing traffic conditions and best routes, or will they merely pass back data to intelligence elsewhere and get instructions in return? If humanoid robots appear, the same issues arise.

In fact, we probably need to reconsider the role of electronics and start thinking in terms of systems that work together. We need to think less in terms of the atomic unit of the phone, of software and hardware, and more in terms of access to systems with devices, programs and partnerships.

To best understand this shift, we need to look back at how electronics have developed, in four phases, with each transition separated by about 7-8 years from its predecessor: analog expansion, digital convergence, digital optimization and systemic integration.

Analog expansion

Prior to the digitization of media around the end of the 20th century, electronic devices were very different to how they are today. Media was all physical and radically different, and named after the physical device we needed to play the media on.

My iPod replaced three music devices before my smartphone allowed me to throw that away.

Around 1995 I owned a TV, a VHS player, a Walkman, a Discman, a cordless phone, a desktop computer, a CD player, a Hi-Fi and more. Every new year would bring some new technology and some new additive way to be entertained — in 1997 it was a minidisc player, in 1998 a LaserDisc and in 2000 a DVD player. This was the era of “peak device.” Record stores were often forced to sell several physical formats of the same album at the same time, and so on.

Digital convergence

Digitization changed all that; we moved to an age where physical media only got simpler. My iPod replaced three music devices before my smartphone allowed me to throw that away, along with a bucketload of other items, not least a vast physical music collection.

Older folks may moan about a throwaway generation, or the excess of a $1,000 smartphone, but the value of an uncluttered life is far greater, both for us and for the planet. People can now play computer games, access TV and navigate the world with no need to own, let alone “have” anything. My Lonely Planet guidebook collection in my parentshouse is a rare glimpse into the legacy of an expensive, bulky pre-digital age.

Smart optimization

With the smartphone firmly established in the late oughties as our definitive all-purpose personal device, capable of serving as everything from watch to game console to flashlight, any device that wasnt a smartphone suddenly needed a more compelling reason to exist in the eyes of consumers, and the results have been optimization of many things that before we hadnt really considered improvable. Weve seen devices like the Google ChromeCast make TV far better. Weve seen connected scales that weigh us and tell us the weather, and Philips Hue lighting and the Sonos Playbar sound bar. All are wonderful examples of items perfected to suit the needs of today’s demanding consumer.

Yet we’re still seeing systems that don’t work. We’re still dealing with use cases that overlap. I believe the next tranche of consumer electronics will first start with people, who must think of the world in which they live — which is increasingly one of devices as nodes in a system.

Personal digital systems

One of the most amazing things about the Tesla and Echo is that they are reversing the long-established principle that physical things degrade with time. Thanks to software, you can now wake up to a far more improved product than when you left it. This is a new way of thinking. These are products designed with software, hardware and partnerships together, by companies that now realize our experience of products is about access to a system, rather than the delight of each machine alone.

We need to think more in terms of commercial partnerships that large tech companies can make.

What makes mobile money work is retailers that embrace it. From smartwatches that open doors to airlines that accept mobile boarding passes, we need to think more in terms of commercial partnerships that large tech companies can make. We need to think of the device as being the physical entry token to a sort-of club membership, of ownership as access rather than as a singular tangible entity.

Device makers need to shift their entire way of thinking away from the physicality of devices to the creations of these clubs. The new questions for the future are not just what does the device do, but what does ownership allow, how can ownership feel like being part of a club? What unique experiences can I offer, not what unique functions have I engineered?

Car makers need to think less in terms of vehicle performance and more in terms of the experience of ownership and being in the mobility sector, not the car-making world. Device owners need to be creating benefits for their system, from how their array of devices work together, to how they provide unique experiences, to how they interface with the world around us.

Our phones, smartwatches and tablets increasingly access points to the hub of our lives in the cloud — our interface between the real and virtual. They’re how we navigate, buy and make decisions in both realms. It’s now time for all in the industry to think of how these devices can not just become great products, but great gateways to an easier, faster and better life.