The mighty smartphone is about to be billed – at least from a sales perspective. During the 2022 holiday season, smartphone shipments fell by more than 18 percent compared to the same period last year. In general, last year had the lowest annual total since 2013. Research firm IDC said this was due to “significantly subdued consumer demand, inflation and economic uncertainties.”
You only have to look twice at your grocery bill to feel that pressure, but macroeconomics aside, the smartphone itself probably deserves some blame (or credit) for our waning interest. Smartphones are actually amazing devices. This is why we are so addicted to them and why most people have one in so many places around the world. You don’t even have to spend a grand to get a premium phone anymore. Have you used a $300 or $400 phone lately? You are damn good. Phones are also becoming more repairable; Why buy a new one when you can just trade in a better battery? The used or refurbished market is also growing.
So what does the future of the phone hold, even in this period of declining sales? As WIRED marks its 30th anniversary as a publication, we asked more than half a dozen technologists, builders, designers, analysts and futurists for their thoughts on what’s next for smartphones. Some focused on the form factor. Others said advanced silicon will help us distinguish “real” media from fake or AI-generated facsimiles. And some predicted actual phone calls would fall by the wayside. Yet almost everyone believes that we will continue to carry the smartphone with us, both literally and metaphorically. The smartphone market may never experience the same meteoric rise as it did in the 2010s, but the almighty handheld computer is here to stay.
Below are five of their answers to the question: What will smartphones and how we use them look like in 10 years?
Tony Fadell, Director at Build Collective: I’m not a fortune teller so I don’t know exactly what will happen. But I know what’s going on at a technological level. I think we will continue to see better and better displays. Brighter colors and better power management and stuff like that. But also the pixel density will be really great and it will be a question what else can you hide under the display?
Foldable devices will be a niche; They are very expensive and will continue to be bulkier due to the nature of mechanical systems. So I think there will be a specific place or needs for these.
More specifically, though, I think the connection between the pixel you’re looking at and the CPU and graphics cores is fully encrypted. So now when we say that something is encrypted, it’s from the device to the server. It is encrypted during transmission or storage. In the future, things between chips and between input-output will be encrypted. And that’s because you want to know if something is real. So when you record a voice, photo or video, it is processed and stamped by a specific core. It confirms that it wasn’t a deepfake, it wasn’t manipulated in any way, or Photoshopped or filtered.
I also think we will see more processing power in headsets. Here’s something I was working on three or four years ago. [Fadell pulls out a thin, gray, behind-the-ear pair of headphones.] You just put them behind your ear. That’s it, no cell phone needed. I can’t tell you where I created these, but the problem was that before it was just a standard voice interface, not a chat interface. But in the future your phone can be tucked away and you can speak into them and actually have a natural conversation instead of always having to use your phone and your keyboard and all.
And I made that very clear: fuck the metaverse. I’ve said it many times. I think VR is incredibly good for certain things, I think AR is even better for certain things, but the future isn’t “always wearing headsets”.
Ayah Bdeir, entrepreneur and founder of LittleBits: I think we just let technology and technology creators build things freely. There were many supposed advances that were not thought through and not accountable. I have many concerns about the role technology plays in young people’s lives. And cell phones in particular are one of the big culprits. I see it, I feel it on days when I spend a lot of time on my phone. I’m excited and nervous and feel like my body is physically bent and my eyes are dry.
But neither is my current perspective on life, “Let’s throw our technology in the ocean! Back to pen and paper!” In fact, I don’t even believe how to write with a pen anymore. So I obviously have a very, very big love-hate relationship with the phone.
I think the future of the phone is for the experience to be distributed. In a way, this is already happening, as in the way your Apple Watch talks to you. And I think attempts to build smart glasses will make a comeback. I think in the future we will stop carrying the phone. And we won’t actually be on the phone anymore. We will communicate a lot in voice notes and we will rely on devices that are easier to communicate in voice notes. The periphery of the smartphone is gaining in importance.
But to get back to my original point, we need to convince people to invest more in responsible technology. Right now there is this black hole that the AI is sucking in anyone with any intelligence, skill, talent and degree. There must be enough reason for people to develop in other areas as well, and enough desire to have thoughtful physical experiences at the same time. And I think how we evaluate that will be a societal decision.
Erika Hall, author and co-founder of Mule Design: Predicting the future requires looking closely at the present and past, putting the behavioral and incentive systems in context, and considering what might or might not change. I live in an 1884 house, which helps me moderate my expectations. Life is the same but with electricity and screens.
I think the smartphone is like the car that was very successful at fitting into an existing space, allowing for so much power and convenience. We reconfigured the entire society around him, even in the face of the downsides.
We’ve all seen these composite images of the many physical products that have been integrated into the smartphone. It will just be more of it and continue to replace everything in the wallet. Whatever technology emerges around it, the smartphone will remain what we wear because we all Love they wear. At this point, it’s difficult to function in society without one, and that’s not going to change. Some people will get the latest high-end model, and others will use a cheap, basic phone until it falls apart. Regional regulations are likely to force some changes, and wealthy users can pay for more privacy.
Has the car become more humane or more ethical in 100 years? It has become progressively less dangerous for the occupants. That’s all. Also! The “phone” app will eventually be a holdover, and there will definitely be OS or app-level features to help identify AI-generated content, a la spam filters.
Anshel Sag, Analyst at Moor Insights & Strategy: I think in 10 years the smartphone will look very similar to today. In the sense that the way we use it will still be very central to our daily lives. And the reason I’m saying that is because the form factor is really going to evolve. We’ve obviously ended up with the candy bar design and that’s going to be the case for quite a while, but I think the vast majority of the market will go foldable. As the smartphone market changes, people will try to get more use out of this one device.
I also think that we are still more than 10 years away from replacing the smartphone with AR glasses or VR or ambient computing. Because of this, the smartphone becomes the hub that connects all these devices to the internet. There will be just enough processing power and connectivity in these devices to keep wearables light, but the smartphone will really do the local AI processing. I think that’s why Apple [reportedly] I’ve now moved away from a standalone headset and leaned a bit more toward a tethered device.
Do I believe that sales will reach the level of the last few years? I don’t believe. The industry will continue to flow at the expected capacity, but I don’t see a huge spike in growth unless there is a massive slowdown on a global scale at some point. Importantly, there are opportunities in markets that are still underserved. Africa is one where many of the phones in use are still feature phones, not full-fledged smartphones. The 5G expansion in India also has potential. But I think we’ve gotten to a point where the smartphone market isn’t going to fluctuate drastically anymore; it’s going to behave very much like the PC market, where there are years of slow growth and then sometimes economic conditions squeeze sales.
Kyle Wiens, co-founder and CEO of iFixit and a advocate for the right to repair: I am certainly confident that the smartphone will move more in the direction of repairability and upgradeability. You probably remember Google’s Project Ara from back when there was supposed to be a more modular phone. They almost got the phone ready to start and then turned it off. So the modular phone had all this momentum, and then it stopped.
I think phones will move more towards upgradeable cameras like the Fairphone did. There is nothing architecturally extremely difficult to do; Someone of greatness would just have to go for it. The iPhone 14 has been completely rebuilt so you can open both the front and back of the phone, which does nothing except make it more repairable. And Nokia just launched a new phone at Mobile World Congress last month and the claim is that it’s super repairable and parts and instructions will be available on day one. So this is all a step in the right direction.
You know, I’m actually kind of a Luddite camp in that I use my phone as little as possible. Because of the headphone jack, I’m using a Pixel 5A. But I have almost no apps on my home screen. I do very little on my phone: Audible and Twitter. And I hate to generalize for everyone else, but I really would rather just be out in the world than on my phone.
I also think that the app stores will be closed. I find [Apple’s] The app store monopoly will end, and part of that is the EU mandating Apple to allow alternative app stores. The US won’t in my opinion, but that’s okay. The App Store will still have a lot of impact, but the walled garden will collapse. And the next thing to break is the iMessage monopoly, especially given the way young kids are messaging. I mean sure, those are my hopes and dreams. But the alternative is the vision of what Apple wants, and that’s effectively what we have now.