Lowenstein's View: It's time to talk about the 'post-smartphone' era

Mark Lowenstein

Steve Jobs, in promoting the iPad, famously coined the term "post-PC." With the success of tablets, and at least modest cannibalization of PC sales, there has been a vigorous discussion of what the next era of "computing" will look like.

I think we should be including, in this discussion, the "post-smartphone" era. At the end of the day, a smartphone is a small portable computer with constant [in an ideal world, broadband] connectivity. Think of it: if you added a cellular connectivity plan and a phone number to an iPod touch, you would have a smartphone. The distinction gets even murkier with reliable broadband (cellular or near universal Wi-Fi) connectivity, since VoIP could substitute for cellular voice (although only the cellular network can support true "mobility").

Without even officially coining the term, the conversation has already unofficially begun, with the increasingly blurry line between larger screen phones and smaller screen tablets--hence the term, "phablet."  Cloud services are also a major accelerant of this discussion, since it is now possible to access personal information management (messaging, social, contacts, calendar), content and applications across screens.

Many would agree that if we were to have to come up with the name of what a smartphone is today, we probably wouldn't call it a "smartphone." The term was originally coined in the era when the BlackBerry showed that portable devices could do more than voice, text and rudimentary personalization apps (ringtones and the like), and when the main conduit to anything else, such as navigation, games, and content was through the operator channel. Actually, if the term "PC" wasn't already "taken," we might as easily call the smartphone a "portable computer."

But this discussion is about more than just semantics. It's really about unique role of this "portable computer" in our multi-screen, constantly connected world. The unique advantages of the device formerly known as the cellular phone boil down to four essential elements:

  • Portability, generally fitting in a hand or pocket
  • Connectivity. Always on, with the ability to almost constantly connected (the only barriers to that being cost, coverage and the airlines).
  • Speed. With native apps, it can do many things faster than on other computing devices, whether it's checking the weather, adding an appointment, or paying for a product.
  • Unique functionality. Just as a tablet is a much better media consumption device than a PC (or a phone), the smartphone of the 2008-2012 era has incorporated several unique capabilities, that, until recently, have not been commonly found in other computing devices: voice, location, two cameras, accelerometer, gyroscope, multi-touch sensors, audio (input and output), and multiple connectivity options including cellular, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, and NFC.

To wit, much of the action over the past two years has been to add smartphone UI elements and functionality into PCs and tablets, such as touch, voice navigation (i.e., SIRI), instant (text) messaging, imaging, and so on. And, if one considers the relative uniformity in phone design over the past couple of years, and the now narrow distinction in capability between portable phone operating systems, form factor innovation has been more focused on the laptop/tablet segment. A lot of effort has also gone into ensuring that marquee content and apps work on any portable computing device.

This discussion is important because I believe our portable computing and connectivity universe is going to be fundamentally redefined over the next three-to-five years. What will be the essential elements of this?

  • Platform Homologation. Just as the distinction between voice/messaging/data is starting to erode, we will see homologation of computing platforms. Witness, for example, the iOS-ization of MAC OS, and the parallel tracks of Windows 8 and Windows Phone 8.
  • Screen Optimization. As the distinction between phone/tablet/PC erodes, there will be increased focus on optimizing applications for different screen sizes. HTML 5 and Responsive Design are early indicators of this. There will be more innovation on improving input for smaller screen devices, in the form of voice input, and portable/virtual/projectable keyboards. Also, we'll see more in the way of "docking" options. Just as AirPlay allows content on an iPhone or iPad to be viewed on a TV, we'll see various options for content on a phone/tablet/laptop to wirelessly display on a larger screen in a home, office, or hotel room, with concomitant adjustments in functionality.
  • Connectivity. I believe there will be significant disruption to today's connectivity model. Device subsidies, usage-based pricing and "Share" programs all perpetuate the "telephony" connectivity model--and for good reason, since the wireless operators have fronted the cost of building the networks, and capacity (i.e., spectrum) remains constrained. The economics of LTE, availability of more spectrum, robust competitive environment, and wholesale models could change all that. Amazon and Google are two influential entities, for example, that would love to provide their own connectivity. Plus, think of all the action going on with Wi-Fi and Super Wi-Fi. There could well be a model for using primarily Wi-Fi when stationary or in densely populated areas, with occasional "roaming" onto cellular networks when "mobility" is required.
  • Voice. Over time, dependence on the circuit-switched cellular network for voice will be reduced. VoIP on a good HSPA+ or LTE network works pretty well. Operators themselves will transition to VoIP over the next several years. This all means that voice becomes an "app" that can be used on any device, not just a phone. The distinction between voice/text/data services will erode, in favor of "connectivity" plans, such as we experience for residential broadband. The "What'sApp" phenomenon, which is disrupting the SMS gravy train in certain countries, could happen in voice. The question is how soon, to what extent, and whether the operators themselves do the disrupting rather than be disrupted.
  • Cloud and Synchronization. The success of applications such as Evernote is an early indication of how things will look. It is a cloud-based service that works across, and is optimized for, different screen sizes, functionality, and input mechanisms. The action, over the next few years, will be around figuring out how more sophisticated applications and software that can work across a multi-screen, cloud-based world, and the licensing/business models associated with this game change.

Rather than calling this the "post-PC" or "post-smartphone" era, a more apt term would be "multi-screen" era.

Mark Lowenstein, a leading industry analyst, consultant, and commentator, is managing director of Mobile Ecosystem. Click here to subscribe to his free Lens on Wireless monthly newsletter, or follow him on Twitter at @marklowenstein.