Remember when Apple was top of the tech world? With each passing year, that seems more distant. The company is losing experienced engineers to Tesla and other contemporaries in droves; it’s reducing how many iPhones it makes, an ominous sign when the iPhone is by far their most popular product; and some tech industry leaders, most notably Trump adviser Peter Thiel, are arguing that innovation in smartphones is dead.
But is it? Before we get to an answer, it’s worth looking into why the smartphone — specifically the iPhone — caught on in the first place. Yes, the iPhone was undeniably cool (the fulfillment of the dreams of nerds who grew up watching Star Trek everywhere) but it was also practical. Here was a device that solved everyday problems for you, whether it was finding a place to eat, letting you check your email, or dealing with your finances. It was what people wanted the computers of that time to be: Simple, easy to use, and small enough to fit in your pocket.
Mostly, when smartphones change these days, it’s by upgrading or adding new sensors. Part of the reason Apple has been so obsessed with the iPhone’s camera lately is because it’s a natural focus for technical innovation. Other companies have more extreme ideas: Changhong just installed a molecular scanner in its flagship phone — a scanner that can tell you everything from your body fat percentage to which strawberry tastes the best.
But are small innovations a bad thing? The tech industry is notable for attitudes like “move fast and break things,” but it often breaks itself against consumer apathy. In 2013, when smartwatches were about to hit the market, we asked what problem the smartwatch solved that would make it essential to everyday life. The answer, so far, has been “none” and that shows, as smartwatches have quietly been dying, languishing in the beautiful boxes they came in.
The same was true of Google Glass (which just made us look stupid without offering any useful functionality), and it appears more and more to be holding true for virtual and augmented reality. Google Home and Amazon Echo appear to be selling well, but they’re not capturing the popular imagination the way the original iPhone did.
In this light, the iPhone chugging along, adding new features slowly, might be boring but it isn’t necessarily bad. The idea of our smartphones regularly becoming more useful, more powerful, more effective at helping us deal with everything from splitting a check to splitting the atom is fascinating. A decade ago, when the iPhone was announced, the idea of a supercomputer in every pocket was science fiction; now it’s so much the norm that you’d feel shocked if someone didn’t have one.
Revolution is thrilling, but real, genuine change in technology tends to come through evolution instead. TVs get skinnier over time; computers become faster every two years; gadgets become more power-efficient. It’s easy to forget that owning a computer was little more than a curiosity back in the 1970s, until a software company figured out you could use them to do away with paper ledgers and streamline bookkeeping.
It wasn’t the gadget: It was how it could be used. Smartphones are at that point in their existence, leaving us to wonder less about the hardware changes and more about which clever app is next.