Everywhere I’ve turned my hand over the past few years, someone has been promising the next big thing after smartphones. Yes, they say, the iPhone is the most mainstream product in the history of consumer electronics, and the smartphone has reprogrammed the world in ways completely unparalleled. But have you seen that voice assistant that makes Morgan Freeman give you driving directions, or those giant glasses that let you play ping pong with someone across the world? this is is the future.
We’re in a shrinking moment in the tech industry, with companies of all kinds grappling with a tough economy and the fact that the pandemic wasn’t an acceleration of future trends as it was, well, a global pandemic that forced everyone to radically and practically change their lives overnight. Most people are back at their desks, most kids are back at school, and instead of living in the year 2039, we’re pretty much back in the year 2019.
This means that the future, at least the one promised by startups, has taken a beating in the past few months. Meta has laid off 11,000 people across the company, including at Reality Labs, the team responsible for building Quest products and making the metaverse happen. Meanwhile, the Quest Pro, which was supposed to be an enticing glimpse into the future of augmented and virtual reality, is mostly a disaster.
The future has taken a beating over the past few months
Elsewhere, Amazon has reportedly cut 10,000 jobs of its own, and the Alexa team is said to be hardest hit. Snap has laid off about 20 percent of its employees, including the Spectacles team, and scrapped its mobile drone. The augmented reality glasses that Apple launched have been rumored for many years, and CEO Tim Cook said that the company needs to be “very deliberate” in the recruitment process in the future. Microsoft’s HoloLens status appears to be in serious doubt, as the company has decided to be the Quest’s software supplier instead.
With stock prices plummeting across the tech industry and an uncertain macroeconomic future, there’s little budget or freedom to build things that don’t work — and none of these companies’ big future bets are currently working. After a decade of growth (and the last two years of huge growth), the free money is suddenly gone, and all that’s left are a lot of big ideas without a business plan or enough users.
Amazon’s failure is perhaps the most instructive here. After trying and failing to break into the phone market with the Fire Phone, the company has spent the better part of a decade pumping R&D and marketing budgets to bring Alexa to life. Dave Limp, senior vice president of Devices and Services at Amazon, He said recently financial times That “I’ll take five Fire Phone failures, if I can get one Alexa.”
Executives across the company will be happy to give you stories about all the things a voice assistant can do for you, and tell you about the millions of people happily chatting away with their Alexa devices. And yet According to a report from inside and others, the company has struggled to find a working model for the device, and to get users to do more than play music and set timers.
Amazon’s big idea of Alexa wasn’t exactly wrong. In fact, most of the tech industry shares the vision of ambient computing: a seamless network of tools that know you and can act on your behalf to achieve all kinds of goals. And there are a lot of Alexa devices in people’s homes, playing music and setting timers. But no one has figured out how to make ambient computing profitable.
Do you have loudspeakers shouting unprecedented mattress announcements into people’s living rooms? This is a bad user experience. Do you allow companies to pay to be the person people buy toilet paper from when they ask Alexa to buy toilet paper? This makes users not trust the system. The teams behind Alexa, Google Assistant, and Siri have struggled to help you figure out what you can do with their assistants, and to facilitate your successful interactions. They compete with the big screen in your pocket too, which you already know how to use.
Companies working on AR, VR, and the metaverse are having a more difficult time, trying to invent a whole new stack of tech while simultaneously convincing the world that you absolutely want to spend all your waking and working hours inside a headset. It seems likely that augmented reality will eventually catch on, at least for things like getting directions and accessing information about the real world. But the technology to make this cool is still a long way off, and it’s not at all clear that VR will be a mainstream activity outside of some fun video games.
Now, to be fair, it’s not like any category in tech is taking a smashing hit in these uncertain times. (Excluding Mac sales, I think the lesson here is regular wrecking and then improving your products late into juicy sales.) Even the smartphone market is down this year: worldwide shipments It decreased by about 8.7 percent year on yearAnalytics firm IDC reported in August.
After that, things didn’t really go well. The launch of the iPhone 14 didn’t go as well as Apple expected, in part for supply reasons but also because it wasn’t a very exciting upgrade over the iPhone 13. Google’s Pixel 7 proved to be a nice phone but a similarly unexciting upgrade. Same goes for the Samsung Galaxy S22, and anything you buy from Huawei or OnePlus. Folding and flip phones may be a thing, but for the most part, phones are a huge, mature market, and as a result they aren’t terribly innovative anymore.
However, phones seem to be more unstoppable than ever. Even things that voice assistants and augmented reality glasses do really well, phones do better. Voice dictation works impressively well on both Android and iOS, and Google Live View in Maps is already a good AR navigation tool. You’ll get better, more fun snaps from Snapchat on your phone than you can with Spectacles. Most of the promise of the metaverse is already happening in Fortnite and Roblox – and on those platforms, you’re not stuck with no legs and no easy way out of the virtual environment. Everyone is trying to create new and better platforms, but there is probably no platform as powerful and versatile as a touch screen in your pocket.
Smartphones may be boring now, but that’s only because they’ve been so good for so long
Smartphones may be boring now, but that’s only because they’ve been so good for so long. Since they have become so ingrained and ubiquitous in our lives, it has become even more difficult to disrupt them. How do you beat a device that can do everything and is always with you? Battery life, I think. But good luck with that AR glasses.
Phones aren’t perfect, and there’s a lot to be said about the potential for other devices to not only do some things better, but also help reset our relationship with technology. Whatever eventually replaces the phone as our primary way of computing, we hope it will include fewer push notifications and fewer tactics designed to steal our personal data and keep us busy for many hours a day. But for now, as the tech industry resets and repositions itself to see what the next decade looks like, one thing is clear: The next big thing is the big thing in your pocket.
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