Are We Stuck in the Third Age of Mobile?

November 4, 2016

This article is featured in the November Technology issue of O’Dwyer’s Magazine and was written by RJ Bardsley, EVP of Global Technology and Strategy Lead.

We’re witnessing a crucial juncture in the evolution of mobile that’s forcing the industry to question what function and future role these devices will play in our increasingly connected lives.

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The only thing more captivating than the presidential race in the news these days seems to be the challenges Samsung is facing with the Note 7. Say what you will about the company and its portfolio of devices, the Note 7 has focused tremendous scrutiny on the company and its ability to deliver high quality, compelling innovation. It has also focused a lot of attention on something else: the broader state of the mobile industry.

There have been a lot of discussions in the media over the past year about the crisis in innovation in the mobile sector. The Wall Street Journal’s Joanna Stern recently wrote that “these days it’s hard to decide which is more thrilling: watching a new phone announcement or doing laundry while listening to hold music.”

While I think Stern’s words are a little harsh, and that there are still a lot of really cool phones coming to market, to many, it seems like the days of wonder and amazement have passed for mobile devices. Will we ever feel that sense of awe that we felt with our first iPhone, Nokia, Blackberry or Palm? Arguably, the devices in the market today do a lot more, a lot faster and with a lot better connectivity, then their distant ancestors. But where has the “wow” gone? I believe we’re in the third age of mobile. I’m calling it the Age of Introspection. And guess what: there’s a lot more to come from this industry, but we have to get through this phase first. I’m not a historian, but let me elaborate a little more on my theory of the evolution of the mobile experience:

Phase one: the Age of Utility

In the first phase of the mobile phone, we had great big bulky car phones and brick handsets. Were they sexy? No and yes. If you had one, you were super important. The device itself couldn’t do much more than make a call. Battery life was awful and connectivity was nonexistent. But there was a mystique around these devices that began to capture the attention of the broader public.

Phase two: the Age of Invention

The rise of the Internet and the first dot. com bubble moved technology into the American mainstream, and eventually global, culture. With that move, the cell phone became glamorous. Motorola flip phones, Nokia Candy Bars and Blackberry devices came onto the scene and all of a sudden we were living in a new universe. We were freed from the shackles of our desks. We could text our friends (who doesn’t remember the “T-9” texting function on standard dial pads of the late 1990s?). Suddenly we were all as connected as the Wall Street bankers with all their car phones and brick phones.

The other thing that happened during this Age of Invention was an explosion of form factors — we had flip phones and sliders and keyboards and you name it — everything you imagine a phone morphing into seemed to happen. I also toyed with calling this the Age of Wonder — because there was so much excitement with every new device debut, and this translated into an incredible optimism about the future of the industry. Even as the dot.com bubble collapsed under its own weight of expectations, the mobile web, as we were calling it during this phase, seemed poised to take off.

Phase three: the Age of Introspection

The pinnacle of the Age of Invention was the launch of the first iPhone. This was also the beginning of our current phase, The Age of Introspection. The iPhone, for all its brilliance, started us down a path where everything would start to look remarkably similar. As Android evolved, it provided an increasingly elegant alternative to iOS, but between the two systems, they eliminated the rest of the ecosystem. The recent news about Blackberry ceasing its own handset business was disheartening, not because they were great devices or the operating system was particularly remarkable, but because it emphasized the increasingly narrow variety of devices on the market.

But, this Age of Introspection is important, because it’s forcing the industry to do some soul searching. What’s the next step in the evolution of the handset? Is it camera, battery, network or screen improvements? Is it software? Is it rethinking the app paradigm? Is it an altogether new form factor? Is it an evolution of the role of the device to a central portal for our connected lives? I wish I knew the answer to the question, but I don’t. However, if I were to make an educated guess, it would be some combination of all of them.

Perhaps the future lies in the personality of the device. In a recent presentation in San Francisco, Google Chief Executive Sundar Pichai said that “we’re evolving from a mobile-first to an AI-first world.” That sounds interesting enough, but I think there’s more to it than that. While Apple, Google, IBM, Amazon and Microsoft are all making huge strides in Artificial Intelligence — and its application to mobile devices. Perhaps the new generation of “wow” will come from a device’s temperament and ability to connect with us.

One thing that I do know is that this Age of Introspection is healthy; it’s something we all must go through together: consumers, marketers, manufacturers, chip designers, everyone. It will be a collective decision on what is important that will hopefully lead us into a new age of mobile. I’m hoping we can call it something like the Age of Enlightenment.