Everywhere you turned over the last few years, someone was promising The Next Big Thing After Smartphones. Yes, they’d say, the iPhone is the most ubiquitous product in the history of consumer electronics and the smartphone reprogrammed the world in utterly unparalleled ways. But have you seen this voice assistant that makes Morgan Freeman give you driving directions, or these humongous goggles that let you play ping-pong with someone across the globe? This is the future.
We’re in a moment of retrenchment in the tech industry, as companies of all types grapple with a tough economy and the fact that the pandemic wasn’t so much an accelerant of future trends as it was, well, a global pandemic that forced everyone to change their lives drastically and practically overnight. Most people are back in offices, most kids are back in school, and instead of living in 2039, we’re largely back to 2019.
That has meant that the future, at least the one the upstarts promised, has taken a beating the last few 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 happen. Meanwhile, the Quest Pro, which was supposed to be an enticing glimpse at the augmented and virtual reality future, is mostly a disaster.
Elsewhere, Amazon cut a reported 10,000 jobs of its own, with the Alexa team reportedly among the most affected. Snap laid off about 20 percent of its staff, including on the Spectacles team, and canceled its handheld drone. Apple’s long-rumored AR glasses are rumored to be years away, and CEO Tim Cook has said the company needs to be “very deliberate” in its hiring going forward. The status of Microsoft’s HoloLens appears very much in doubt, with the company deciding to be a Quest software supplier instead.
With stock prices down across the tech industry and an uncertain future for the overall economy, there’s little budget or freedom to build things that aren’t working — and none of these companies’ big, 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 is a lot of big ideas without a business plan or enough users.
Amazon’s failure is maybe the most instructive here. After trying and 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 making Alexa happen. 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 around the company will gladly regale you with stories about all the things the voice assistant can do for you, and tell you of the millions of people happily chatting away with their own Alexa devices. And yet according to reporting from Insider and others, the company has struggled to find a business model for the device, and to get users to 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 kinds of goals. And there are lots of Alexa devices out there in people’s homes, playing music and setting timers. But nobody’s figured out how to make ambient computing profitable.
Do you have speakers shout mattress ads unprompted into people’s living rooms? That’s a bad user experience. Do you let businesses 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 to make it easy for you to have successful interactions. They’re competing with the big screen in your pocket, too, which you already know how to use.
The companies working on AR, VR, and the metaverse are having an even harder time, as they try to invent a whole new technology stack while simultaneously convincing the world that you totally want to spend all your waking and working hours inside of a headset. It seems likely that augmented reality will catch on eventually, at least for things like getting directions and accessing information about the real world. But the tech to make that great is still a ways off, and it’s not at all clear that VR is ever going to be a mainstream activity outside of some fun video games.
Now, to be fair, it’s not like there’s any category in tech that is a smashing success in these uncertain times. (Except Mac sales, I guess? Apparently the lesson here is to systematically ruin and then belatedly improve your products to juice sales.) Even the smartphone market is down this year: worldwide shipments declined about 8.7 percent year over year, the analysis firm IDC reported in August.
After that, things didn’t really look up. The iPhone 14’s launch didn’t go quite as well as Apple expected, in part for supply reasons but also because it wasn’t a terribly exciting upgrade over the iPhone 13. Google’s Pixel 7 proved to be a nice phone but a similarly unsexy upgrade. Same goes for Samsung’s Galaxy S22, and pretty much anything you’d buy from Huawei or OnePlus. Flipping and folding phones might yet be a thing, but for the most part, phones are a huge, mature market, and are as a result not terribly 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’ll get better and more fun photos out of Snapchat on your phone than you will with Spectacles. Most of the promise of the metaverse 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. Everybody’s 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. As they’ve become so entrenched and ubiquitous in our lives, they’ve become even harder to disrupt. How do you beat the device that can do everything and is always with you? Battery life, I suppose. But good luck with that on your AR glasses.
Phones aren’t perfect, and there’s a lot to be said about the potential for other devices to not only do some things better, but also help reset our relationship with technology. Whatever does eventually supplant the phone as our primary computing method, here’s hoping it involves fewer push notifications and fewer tactics designed to siphon our personal data and keep us engaged 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’s clear: the next big thing is the big thing in your pocket.
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