It's 2019. Smartphones are Out...On to the Next Big Thing...

Kim BellardIt's amusing to watch old movies where plot points often involved someone's inability to talk to the person they needed, in the pre-mobile phone era. We take our smartphone's omnipresence and virtual omnipotence as a given in our daily lives and treat even its temporary loss as a major inconvenience.

So why are people already wondering if the smartphone era is almost over? Speculation on this is not new (voice has been touted as the next big platform for years), but intensified after Apple announced reduced revenue expectations earlier this year -- the first time in 16 years. It specifically cited slower iPhone sales in China and, even more jarring, said it would no longer break out unit sales of iPhones.

Its guidance may have more to do with China's slowing economy, Chinese competitors, or U.S. tariffs on smartphone imports than to anything about the smartphone era, but, as John D. Stoll pointed out in The Wall Street Journal, the iPhone has now been around for almost 12 years, and Apple is overdue for their next big product (the iPad was introduced in 2010).

Mr. Stoll quotes McKinsey's Nick Santhanam: "Over time, every franchise dies. You can innovate on an amazing mousetrap, but if people eventually don't want a mousetrap, you're screwed."
Similarly, and also in the Journal, Timothy W. Martin and Sarah Krouse warn:

Today, it looks like the era of smartphone supremacy is starting to wane. The devices aren't going away any time soon, but their grip on the consumer is weakening. A global sales slump and a lack of hit new advancements has underlined a painful reality for the matured industry: smartphones don't look so singularly smart anymore.

They point to other "smart" options, including wearables, voice assistants, and connected vehicles. Wayne Lam of IHS Markit told them: "We may even need another word for whatever the smartphone will become because when 'smart' is everywhere that term becomes almost meaningless."

Jaede Tan, a director at App Annie, told Mr. Stoll:

What's not going to go away: the need to have a device that's constantly with you, to remote control your life. At the moment, we call that the smartphone. Does it become smaller, sit on your wrist, a chip in the back of your mouth? Maybe. The concept needs to remain constant.

I'll come back to that "chip in the back of your mouth."There's growing consensus that the future is going to entail the Internet of Things (IoT), in which most everything will be connected and much of that will also be "smart." It goes to what AI expert Kai-Fu Lee calls "OMO" -- online merges with offline. He says: "As a next step, offline and online data can be combined...OMO and AI will take us into a future where any distinction between these worlds disappears."

Many believe that this future will be controlled by our voice assistants. As MIT Technology Review put it: "Everything you own in the future will be controlled by your voice. That's what this year's CES, the world's largest annual gadget bonanza, has made abundantly clear."

TechSpot agreed: "One of the clearest developments that came out of 2018, and prominently on display last week at CES 2019, was the rise of the embedded voice assistant. Amazon's Alexa and Google's Assistant were omnipresent at the show...," although they also noted the problem of multiple voice assistants.

I'm not convinced about voice assistants as the next big platform. Yes, they will be more pervasive. But look at it this way: if the voice advocates are right, then in 2025 we're going to be typing less and talking more, only we'll not be talking to each other, but to our ubiquitous devices. That assumes we'll figure out how to make the voice assistants figure out what we're actually saying, and smart enough to know what do in response.

a T9 performing a video search. b T9 searching for artists from a music streaming program. Credit-Nuyujukian et. alia, Plos OneThat's not what I have a problem with.

We all have had the experience of someone talking too loudly near us on their mobile phone. It's annoying. It's distracting. Imagine what it will be like when it is not just people actually making phone calls, but doing anything. Imagine what it will be like when I'm talking to the car using Alexa while you're sitting next to me talking to Siri on your Apple wearable and the kids are in the backseat playing Fortnite using Google Assistant.

We can think faster than we can read, we can read faster than we can talk, and we can (usually) talk faster than we can type. The future of smart devices is certainly not keyboards but it's not talking either.

We're going to control our surroundings, or at least the connected devices in it, with our brains, using a brain-computer interface. It sounds like science fiction or promises from the Singularity Hub, but it is starting to become real. The BrainGate consortium, for example, has been working on this, with some successes. In their most recent BrainGate 2 clinical trial, several paralyzed participants used a brain-computer interface (BCI) to control an off-the-shelf tablet.

Study co-author Leigh Hockberg told IEEE Spectrum: "We wanted to see if we could allow somebody to control not an augmentative or alternative communication device, but the same ubiquitous device that people without physical disabilities use every day."

They could. Their paper reported:

one user noted, "[T]he tablet became second nature to me, very intuitive. It felt more natural than the times I remember using a mouse." Another said, "[A]mazing! I have more control over this than what I normally use." The third added that he "loved" sending text messages via the tablet.

This is cool stuff. This is exciting stuff. And it is the future, not just for those with impairments but for most of us.

Healthcare took 10 - 15 years longer than other industries to really computerize, and is taking 5-10 years longer to get on the smartphone bandwagon. It should quickly figure out what roles voice assistants can play -- EHR input, anyone? -- but maybe healthcare doesn't have to wait for the next truly big bandwagon to move by it before jumping on.

It's 2019. Smartphones are Out...On to the Next Big Thing was authored by Kim Bellard and first published in his blog, From a Different Perspective.... It is reprinted by Open Health News with permission from the author. The original post can be found here.