Where will the underlying wave of technological and commercial innovation strike next in smartphones? Three answers deserve attention.
1. More smartphones
The first answer is that the smartphone market is poised to become much larger. The current growth spurt is going to continue. More and more people are going to be using smartphones and downloading and using more and more applications. This growth will be driven by:
- Decreasing costs of smartphone devices
- Improved network connectivity
- An ever-wider range of different applications tailored to individual needs of individual mobile consumers
- Improved quality of applications, networks and devices – driven by fierce competition
- Burgeoning word-of-mouth recommendations as people tell each other about compelling mobile services that they come across.
Perhaps one day soon, more than 50 percent of all mobile phones will be built using smartphone technology.
The second answer is that smartphones are going to become smarter and more capable. The improvements will be so striking that the phrase “smartphone” won’t do them justice. Google used a new term, “superphone,” when it introduced the Nexus One device. The company wrote:
Nexus One is an exemplar of what’s possible on mobile devices through Android — when cool apps meet a fast, bright and connected computer that fits in your pocket. The Nexus One belongs in the emerging class of devices which we call “superphones.” It’s the first in what we expect to be a series of products which we will bring to market with our operator and hardware partners and sell through our online store.
Newer smartphones – whatever we call them – typically manifest a lot more of the capabilities of the computing technology that’s embedded into them. The result is:
- More powerful applications
- Delivering more useful functionality
The first answer, above, is that smartphones are going to become significantly more numerous. The second answer is that smartphones are going to become significantly more powerful. I believe both these answers. These answers are both easy to understand. But there’s a third answer, which is just as true as the first two – and perhaps even more significant.
Smartphone technology is going to become more and more widely used inside numerous types of devices that don’t look like smartphones. These devices aren’t just larger than smartphones (like superphones). They are different from smartphones, in all kinds of ways.
If the motto “smartphones for all” drove a great deal of the development of the mobile industry during the decade 2000-2010, a new motto will become increasingly important in the coming decade: “Smartphone technology everywhere.” This describes a new wave of embedded software:
- Traditional embedded software is when computing technology is used inside devices that do not look like computers.
- The new wave of embedded software is when smartphone technology is used inside devices that do not look like smartphones.
For want of a better term, we can call these devices “subphones”: The underlying phone functionality is submerged (or embedded).
Smartphone Technology Everywhere
The phrase “smartphone technology” is shorthand for technology (both hardware and software) whose improvement was driven by the booming commercial opportunities of smartphones. Market pressures led to decreased prices, improved quality and new functionality. Here are some examples:
- Wireless communications chips – and the associated software
- Software that can roam transparently over different kinds of wireless networks
- Large-scale data storage and information management – both on a device and on the cloud
- Appealing user interfaces on small, attractive, hi-resolution graphic displays
- Streaming mobile multimedia
The resulting improvements allow these individual components to be re-purposed for different “subphone” devices, such as:
- Tablets and slates
- Connected consumer electronics (such as cameras and personal navigation devices)
- Smart clothing – sometimes called “wearable computers” – or a “personal area network”
The number of such subphones will likely reach into the hundreds of billions (and even beyond) within just a few short years. This will be an era where M2M (machine-to-machine) wireless communications far exceed communications directly involving humans. We’ll be living, not just in a sea of smart devices, but inside an “Internet of Things.”
Barriers to Benefits
Smartphone technologies bring many opportunities – but these opportunities are, themselves, embedded in a network of risks and issues. Some great mobile phone companies failed to survive the transition to smartphones. In turn, some great smartphone companies are struggling to survive the transition to superphones. It’s the same with subphones – they’re harder than they look. They’re going to need new mindsets to fully capitalize on them.
To make successful products via disruptive new combinations of technology typically requires more than raw technological expertise. A broad range of other expertise is needed too:
- Business model innovation – to attract new companies to play new roles (often as “complementors”) in a novel setup
- Ecosystem management – to motivate disparate developers to work together constructively
- System integration and optimization – so that the component technologies join together into a stable, robust, useable whole
- User experience design – to attract and retain users to new usage patterns
The advance of software renders some problems simpler than before. Next-generation tools automate a great deal of what was previously complex and daunting. However, as software is joined together in novel ways with technologies from different fields, unexpected new problems spring up, often at new boundaries. For example, the different kinds of subphones are likely to have unexpected interactions with each other, resulting in rough edges with social and business aspects as much as technological ones.
So while there are many fascinating opportunities in the world beyond smartphones, these opportunities deserve to be approached with care. Choose your partners and supporters wisely, as you contemplate these opportunities. Companies who excel in one era of mobile technology (eg traditional mobile phones) sometimes fail to retain their profit leadership position in a subsequent era (eg superphones).
David Wood is senior executive with Accenture’s Embedded Software Services practice. He can be reached at email@example.com.