Smartphones Are Getting Outsmarted, and Apps Will Be the Next to Fall

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An Apple iPhone 5s with a broken screen. Smartphones have gone from novel to nearing obsolescence in only a few short years of existence; the apps that drive them may soon fade from importance as well. Steve Meddle/Rex

Getting a new smartphone is becoming about as exciting as getting a new refrigerator.

You might've noticed this development if you got a new phone over the holidays. Or you will see it if you watch what comes out of the 2016 Consumer Electronics Show. Phones are where laptops were about 10 years ago. The design and purpose are fixed and well-understood, so all that's left are incremental improvements—making them a little thinner, adding a little more power or coming up with an occasional new feature like Samsung's notifications along an outer edge. (Be still my heart.)

From now on, all the real innovation will happen outside your phone—in apps, the cloud and other connected devices. "We're at the cusp of a transition to wanting our technology on us and around us," Phillippe Kahn, one of the great inventors of mobile technology, told me recently. "Instead of having to carry gadgets, technology will just be there. The more we forget the technology, the better."

Intriguingly, this new world will also be a threat to apps as we know them.

This is not to say that smartphones are finished as a business. About 3.5 billion of the planet's 7 billion people own one. That leaves maybe another billion more potential customers—if you leave out small children, the 1.3 billion who live on less than $1.25 a day, and the grandmothers clutching tightly their Nokia flip phones. And nearly everyone who owns a smartphone today will buy a new one every couple of years, if not more frequently. This is why Apple is valued at more than $600 billion.

Still, we are, over time, going to rely less on our phones, and instead get more things done by connecting to applications and services through a dizzying variety of things. Our attention will move from our phone screens to the ether—we'll feel that our apps are in the air around us, and can be accessed through any connected device we encounter.

Young consumers already seem to be tilting this way. In a survey by Ericsson ConsumerLabs, released in December, half of respondents said that by 2021 they might not even be using a smartphone. They expect to access apps in what they say are more convenient ways.

Like what? Well, cars, for example. Today, if you want your Spotify music and GPS maps and voice calls in the car, you carry your phone into the car, prop it up in the cup holder, and try to stab the screen with your thumb while going 72 miles per hour. We'll come to realize this is cretinous, not to mention hazardous. Cars of the next decade will connect to the network, respond to voice commands and display info like your playlists or maps on a heads-up display in the windshield. Instead of opening a discrete app to do something, you'll just say what you want—"play random Clash songs" or "pay my electric bill."

Amazon's Echo is another nudge in that direction—along with Apple's Siri and Google Now. Set up an Echo at home, and the cylindrical device constantly listens for requests. Echo's software comprehends a properly phrased request, then goes to the cloud to do it—no phone required. The technology is still in its rudimentary stage, but you can see how it makes for a much better way to order Chinese takeout in the middle of sex versus fumbling for your phone on the nightstand and then tapping on the Seamless app.

No single device is going to replace the smartphone. The cloud and artificial intelligence software are going to replace the smartphone. We'll connect through whatever makes sense—a smartwatch, connected eyeglasses, a touch-screen kitchen counter, cars, Echo, Nest, Fitbit, Oculus Rift. Motorola Mobility recently patented a device that would get implanted under the skin and respond to voice commands. (Poking a gadget into yourself isn't as weird as getting a belly-button ring, which can't even hum the national anthem.) If a service needs to know who you are, it might scan your voice, face or fingerprint. No more remembering 259 user names and passwords.

Today each app focuses on one service, so anything you do on a device requires you to think first about which app to open. That's a barrier when you just want to get shit done. The technology needs to act more like a great personal assistant who already knows your preferences and understands your shorthand orders.

Plus, who wants to have to install a boatload of apps on your watch, car, implanted gadget and a dozen other devices? It would drive you nuts. As Google director Aparna Chennapragada says, the goal has to be to "de-silo and unbundle the function of apps" so software like Google Now, Siri or Echo can mix and match app services to accomplish the task you requested. Once that happens, we won't think of apps the way we do now. In fact, it's likely we won't think of apps at all.

The physical gadget of smartphone won't go away—no more than laptops have gone away. The smartphone, though, is probably heading for a future as more of a pocket screen—something that allows you to watch videos, read news stories and take pictures when you're out. It won't be the center of your tech life—it will be an adjunct.

That's another way smartphones are like laptops. Not so long ago, new laptops were exciting to buy. They contained our lives on their hard drives and were our windows to the world through the Internet. Now laptops seem more like work tools, and new ones don't seem much different from the one you bought a few years ago. Much the same fate awaits smartphones.

On the flip side, next-generation refrigerators will connect to the network and come armed with sensors and AI software that can automatically take care of important things, like understanding that you just ordered General Tso's chicken through Echo during foreplay, noticing that you're out of beer and ordering more to be delivered ASAP. Now that's exciting.

Smartphones Are Getting Outsmarted, and Apps Will Be the Next to Fall