Breaking up big tech can make smartphones interesting again
We’re not upgrading to gorgeous new hardware because cloud services have stagnated
Column I’ve wanted to want a shiny new iPhone since the last lot were launched, but I haven’t been able to actually make myself desire the new model. Try as I might, it hasn’t worked. My three-year-old iPhone X works perfectly, still has ‘the snappy’, and doesn’t have a scratch. So why would I get a new smartphone?
A decade ago, I upgraded my smartphone annually. A few years later I went biennial, and now, well, I can’t say exactly when I’ll replace it. That feels deeply wrong to someone who has made a career in technology and has a futurist’s desire to experience novel devices.
Could it be that smartphones are no longer on the bleeding edge?
Sure, we need them to communicate, to work, and manage increasingly digital lives. That need spelled their doom: in the fourteen years since the iPhone’s introduction, they’ve blazed a path from intensely fascinating toys to utterly banal tools.
Apple and its kin have done their job too well; in making the smartphone indispensable, they’ve also made it completely ignorable. We use them, they work reliably across continuously lengthening spans of time - and beyond that we don’t need to care about them very often … Unless you’re an Apple shareholder.
And it’s a good thing if they’re upset, because a smartphone with a working life of five years touches the planet less-harshly even if it’s used for catching up with the latest fake news on Facebook or self-radicalising videos on YouTube.
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I find myself going through the same contortions around Apple’s new M1-based computers. Both of my heavily-used, five-year-old Macs remain in very good condition (though the MacBook Pro has been in for repairs). They’re both fast enough for anything I do with the exception of heavy video editing. Do I need an upgrade to a laptop that has three times the speed and endless battery life? In this COVID-world, where I rarely even leave the confines of my suburb, that kind of portable power is not imperative. Again, Apple has done their work so well that I simply can’t justify an upgrade.
Yet sales have climbed: people continue to buy loads of new computers, as the pandemic accelerates our transition into a world where some hybrid of work-in-the-office/work-from-home/work-from-anywhere becomes the norm. We need new kit to stay connected, collaborative and collegial, but this looks less like a PC renaissance than a ‘dead cat bounce’.
The important move in this moment is the one that has shaped computing for more than half a century: a pendulum swing back toward centralised cloud services driving smartphone ‘terminals’.
If anything, their anticompetitive practices deprived the cloud of much of its competitive innovation
Although an entirely worthy effort, breaking up tech’s trillion-dollar giants will not slow the drive toward the centre. They’re beneficiaries rather than the facilitators of this transition, caught in the right place at the right time. If anything, their anticompetitive practices deprived the cloud of much of its competitive innovation, making it less attractive than it might otherwise have been in a more open and chaotic market. Should the new antitrust suits against Google and Facebook succeed in usefully brief amount of time, we could even see the cloud migrate away from banal messaging, scheduling and CRM, to become a source of endless novelty and delight - an object of fascination.
And maybe that’s what all of this comes down to - the need to feel something more than just the ‘same old-same old’ when staring down into a screen. What once seemed wonderous now feels dry, prosaic and boring. Our hardware has long had everything needed to give flight to our dreams. We need to dream bigger, sailing beyond the comfortable and the known, if we want to find something truly surprising. At the end of a horror year, could we resolve to create some delight in the next? ®