Everywhere you’ve been for the past few years, someone was promising The Next Big Thing After Smartphones. Yes, they would say, the iPhone is the most ubiquitous product in consumer electronics history, and the smartphone has reprogrammed the world in completely unparalleled ways. But have you seen this voice assistant that Morgan Freeman uses to give you directions, or these giant glasses that let you play ping pong with anyone around the world? This one is the future.
We are in a moment of austerity in the tech industry as companies of all kinds grapple with a tough economy and the fact that the pandemic was not so much a driver of future trends as a global pandemic that forced everyone to drastically and practically change from one day to the next. Most people are back in the office, most kids are back in school, and instead of living in 2039, we’re largely back in 2019.
That has meant that the future, at least the one the upstarts promised, has taken a beating in recent months. Meta laid off more than 11,000 people across the company, including at Reality Labs, the team responsible for building Quest products and making the metaverse a reality. Meanwhile, the Quest Pro, which should be a tantalizing glimpse into the augmented and virtual reality future, is mostly a disaster.
The future has taken a beating in recent months
Elsewhere, Amazon itself reportedly cut 10,000 jobs, with the Alexa team reportedly among the most affected. Snap laid off about 20 percent of its staff, including the Spectacles team, and canceled its handheld drone. Apple’s AR glasses are rumored to be years away, and CEO Tim Cook has said the company needs to be “very deliberate” when hiring in the future. The status of Microsoft’s HoloLens seems highly questionable, and the company decides to become a Quest software vendor instead.
With falling stock prices across the tech industry and an uncertain future for the economy as a whole, there’s little budget or freedom to build things that don’t work — and none of these companies’ grand, futuristic bets are currently working. After a decade of growth (and two recent years of mega-growth), the free money is suddenly gone, and all that’s left are a bunch of big ideas without a business plan or enough users.
Amazon’s failure is perhaps the most instructive here. After trying but failing to get into the phone market with the Fire Phone, the company spent the better part of a decade pouring R&D muscle and marketing budgets into enabling Alexa. Dave Limp, the senior vice president of devices and services at Amazon, recently told the Financial times that “I’ll take five Fire Phone failures, if I can get one Alexa.”
Executives across the company love to regale you with stories about all the things the voice assistant can do for you, and tell you about the millions of people who enjoy chatting with their own Alexa devices. Still according to reports from Insider and others, the company has struggled to find a business model for the device and let users do more than play music and set timers.
Amazon’s big idea about Alexa wasn’t wrong, exactly. In fact, most of the tech industry shares the ambient computing vision: a seamless network of gadgets that know you and can act on your behalf to accomplish all sorts of goals. And there are a lot of Alexa devices in people’s homes, playing music and setting timers. But no one has figured out how to make ambient computing profitable.
Do you have speakers shouting unsolicited mattress ads into people’s living rooms? That’s a bad user experience. Do you make companies pay to be the one whose toilet paper people buy when they ask Alexa to buy toilet paper? That makes users not trust the system. The teams behind Alexa, Google Assistant, and Siri have all struggled to help you figure out what you can do with their assistants, and make it easy for you to have successful interactions. They also compete with the big screen in your pocket, which you already know how to use.
The companies working on AR, VR, and the metaverse have it even harder, as they try to invent an entirely new technology stack while also convincing the world that you want to spend all your waking and working hours in a headset. It seems likely that augmented reality will eventually catch on, at least for things like getting directions and accessing information about the real world. But the technology to make that great is still a long way off, and it’s not at all clear that VR will ever become a mainstream activity outside of some fun video games.
Now, to be honest, it’s not like there’s a category in technology that’s been a resounding success in these uncertain times. (Except for Mac sales, I guess? Apparently the lesson here is to systematically ruin your products and then improve to juice sales too late.) Even the smartphone market is down this year: Worldwide shipments was down about 8.7 percent year-on-yearreported the analyst firm IDC in August.
After that it didn’t look very good. The launch of the iPhone 14 didn’t go as well as Apple expected, partly due to delivery reasons, but also because it wasn’t a very exciting upgrade over the iPhone 13. Google’s Pixel 7 turned out to be a nice phone, but an already equally unsexy upgrade. The same goes for Samsung’s Galaxy S22 and pretty much anything you’d buy from Huawei or OnePlus. Flipping and folding phones might be another thing, but for the most part, phones are a huge, mature market and so aren’t very innovative anymore.
And yet it feels like phones are more unstoppable than ever. Even the things that voice assistants and AR glasses already do well, phones do better. Voice dictation works impressively well on both Android and iOS, and Google’s Live View in Maps is already a pretty good augmented reality navigation tool. You will get better and more fun photos from Snapchat on your phone than with Spectacles. Most of the metaverse’s promise is already taking place in Fortnite and Roblox – and on those platforms you’re not stuck with no legs and no easy way out of the virtual environment. Everyone is trying to build new and better platforms, but it’s possible that there just isn’t one as powerful and versatile as a touchscreen in your pocket.
Smartphones may be boring now, but that’s only because they’ve been so good for so long
Smartphones may be boring now, but that’s only because they’ve been so good for so long. Because they have become so entrenched and ubiquitous in our lives, they are even harder to disrupt. How do you beat the device that can do everything and is always with you? Battery life, I think. But good luck with that on your AR glasses.
Phones aren’t perfect, and there’s a lot to be said about the potential of other devices to not only do some things better, but reset our relationship with technology. Whatever will eventually supplant the phone as our primary computing method, we hope it brings fewer push notifications and fewer tactics designed to siphon our personal data and occupy us for too many hours a day. But right now, as the tech industry resets and repositions to figure out what the next decade looks like, one thing is clear: the next big thing is the big thing in your pocket.