Another year, another phone announcement. On September 12 Apple unveiled its tenth-anniversary iPhone fittingly named the ‘iPhone X’ and showed off what it calls the “future of phones” featuring a fancy edge-to-edge screen and futuristic augmented reality cameras.
But while I was watching the event, all I could think about was that this phone might be the last smartphone to matter at all. That it marks the beginning of the end of phones as we know it, and we’re at the precipice of them just becoming tools.
What triggered this response wasn’t so much that the iPhone X was amazing — it’s that Apple figured out how to put cellular into a Watch.
Smartphones, as a category, are racing to the bottom. Each other year a trend sets the stage for what phone makers will try to cram in to help market yet another phone in various different ways.
The big trend a few years ago was high-end fingerprint unlocking (started by Touch ID), followed by focusing on camera performance, and now, cramming as much screen onto the front of the device as possible. Bezel-less phones are here, and they’re a thing.
Essential, Samsung and LG have all released phones with ‘edge-to-edge’ displays that look so similar to each other it’s hard to even make an informed decision anymore.
Do you want a black rectangle or a white one? A slightly bigger rectangle or a thinner rectangle? The rectangle with a camera bump or without it?
We’ve seen this before. In around 2004, suddenly computers became boring after being a hot-ticket item you’d need to replace every year or two. Intel’s dual-core processors hit the market and suddenly meant that upgrading your computer didn’t really mean much anymore because your old one was ‘good enough’ and continued to work for many more years.
As a result, the PC market collapsed almost entirely over the following years.
HP, one of the world’s biggest laptop makers, imploded.
Sony pulled out of the industry.
Toshiba continues to be in chaos to this day.
When was the last time you bought a new laptop? Chances are you’re reading this on something you bought four or five years ago. The same is happening to phones right now and the iPhone X is likely the last device that will matter in the category.
Apple Watch, even though it was glossed over, was far more interesting. The company has figured out how to cram a full LTE connection inside of it, so you can stream music or answer calls entirely without a phone.
I realized, all of a sudden, as Tim Cook said the new iPhone is a whopping $999, that’s the future I want. If I could ditch my phone entirely and wear a cellular Apple Watch so I’m reachable, then carry an iPad Pro with me, would I even need a phone?
Besides the lack of a small, powerful camera in my pocket, I don’t think so. It’s likely that cameras as an accessory — like Snap’s Spectacles — will solve that problem, along with real AR glasses, in the near future.
Using a Watch to stay connected but not having a phone would do wonders for my concentration, too.
Rather than responding to every single thing as it comes in, having it on my wrist would allow me to know what’s going on but save responding until I’ve got a larger keyboard in front of me to type on.
Such a ridiculous setup could also loosen the grip Instagram, Facebook and others have on our attention span. No more ending up at the bottom of social networks when you planned to just read a message.
The future, I think, is a bunch of accessories connected directly to the internet, rather than a internet slab in your pocket.
An always-online watch and pair of glasses for on the go, and an iPad for work might be all you need.
There’s a chance you still need an iPhone in your pocket as the processing power for these devices, but if we’re able to get super-fast connections at the level that 5G promises, maybe it can just be done entirely in the cloud instead.
The biggest hole in this plan is even the LTE Apple Watch requires an iPhone to work at all, which is a bummer, but mostly related to battery life.
That future doesn’t seem that far off, really. iPhone X is a futuristic phone, but I think it’s the last big release we’ll see. Apple’s focus on the powerful front-facing camera array is a telling sign here: it’s doubling down on future platforms too, and maybe the phone isn’t central to that.
As phone innovation trails off, the focus of phone makers will rapidly move away from the phone and to other ways to get you connected, hence why Facebook, Magic Leap and many many others are spending billions on glasses as the next platform of computing.
There are only so many ways to make a rectangle appealing, and I think we’ve run out. It’s only a matter of time until we start looking elsewhere.
By Owen Williams