In 10 Years, Your Smartphone Won’t Be a Phone Anymore

In 10 Years, Your iPhone Won’t Be a Phone Anymore

Siri will be the conductor of a suite of devices, all tracking your interactions and anticipating your next moves

By Christopher Mims June 25, 2017 9:00 a.m. ET

It’s 2027, and you’re walking down the street, confident you’ll arrive at your destination even though you don’t know where it is. You may not even remember why your device is telling you to go there.

There’s a voice in your ear giving you turn-by-turn directions and, in between, prepping you for this meeting. Oh, right, you’re supposed to be interviewing a dog whisperer for your pet-psychiatry business. You arrive at the coffee shop, look around quizzically, and a woman you don’t recognize approaches. A display only you can see highlights her face and prints her name next to it in crisp block lettering, Terminator-style. Afterward, you’ll get an automatically generated transcript of everything the two of you said.

As the iPhone this week marks the 10th anniversary of its first sale, it remains one of the most successful consumer products in history. But by the time it celebrates its 20th anniversary, the “phone” concept will be entirely uprooted: That dog-whisperer scenario will be brought to you even if you don’t have an iPhone in your pocket.

Sure, Apple AAPL may still sell a glossy rectangle. (At that point, iPhones may also be thin and foldable, or roll up into scrolls like ancient papyri.) But the suite of apps and services that is today centered around the physical iPhone will have migrated to other, more convenient and equally capable devices—a “body area network” of computers, batteries and sensors residing on our wrists, in our ears, on our faces and who knows where else. We’ll find ourselves leaving the iPhone behind more and more often.

Trying to predict where technology will be in a decade may be a fool’s errand, but how often do we get to tie up so many emerging trends in a neat package?

Apple is busy putting ever more powerful microprocessors, and more wireless radios, in every one of its devices. Siri is getting smarter and popping up in more places. Meanwhile Apple is going deep on augmented reality, giving developers the ability to create apps in which our physical world is filled with everything from Pokémon to whatever IKEA furniture we want to try in our living rooms. All these technologies—interfacing with our smart homes, smart cars, even smart cities—will constitute not just a new way to interact with computers but a new way of life. And of course, worrisome levels of privacy invasion.

Apple’s acquisitions—it buys a company every three to four weeks, Chief Executive Tim Cook has said—tend to be highly predictive of its future moves. Since it first bought Siri in 2010, Apple has continued to make acquisitions in artificial intelligence—Lattice Data, Turi and Perceptio among them, all of which specialize in some form of machine learning. The company is reportedly working on its own chips for AI.

Apple’s preview of iOS 11, with deeper integration of Siri than ever, suggests it hopes to make Siri capable of doing nearly everything on an iPhone that we currently do through its touch interface.

Apple has also made many acquisitions related to augmented reality—the overlay of computer interfaces and three-dimensional objects on a person’s view of the real world—including Primesense and Metaio. Mr. Cook has said he is so excited about AR he wants to “yell out and scream.”

Side view of a ‘head mounted device’ for putting a ‘portable electronic device’—presumably an iPhone—as close to a person’s eyeballs as possible. This could be Apple’s first step toward standalone AR glasses. PHOTO: US PATENT AND TRADEMARK OFFICE

By 2027, the problem of bulky AR headsets like Microsoft’s HoloLens should be solved, which means Apple and others are likely to release some sort of smart eyeglasses. With their ability to convincingly supplement our visual and auditory reality, delivering information at the time and place most appropriate, they’ll occasion a cultural change as big as the introduction of the smartphone itself.

“What you’re going to see with all this augmentation is the psychology of using your phone could change dramatically,” says Ryan Walsh, a partner at venture-capital firm Floodgate who from 2014 to 2016 directed product management for media at Apple. “Instead of using your phone to get away from the world, you’ll use it to join in the world in a much deeper and more meaningful way,” he says.

Augmented reality and artificial intelligence will also benefit from the Internet of Things trend: everyday gadgets getting sensors, actuators and a wireless internet connection. Apple controls smart-home products with HomeKit. It aggregates health information with HealthKit, and ties in the car (CarPlay), cash register (Apple Pay) and even the StairMaster (GymKit). Apple clearly wants its devices to connect to everything on Earth.

With our every action mapped to every outdoor and indoor space we inhabit—combined with the predictive power of AI and distributed across a suite of devices for which Siri has become the default interface—the result could be a life directed by our gadgets, a sort of “Choose Your Own Adventure” for our daily routines.

At first, this will be straightforward. Having automatically filled our calendars using the kind of scheduling AI that already exists, our devices will direct us from one task to another, even suggesting transportation—ridesharing, mass transit or flying car. But the relationship will change as the AI gets to know more about you.

“You might be walking by someplace and it might tell you, ‘Hey, you should go in here, they make a great cup of coffee and there’s also this person you really would like, too’,” says Jonathan Badeen, co-founder and chief strategy officer of dating app Tinder, where he leads teams that think about how to incorporate Apple’s latest technology into apps.

By 2027, Apple and its competitors will also have cemented a world of tradeoffs: If you want your life enhanced by AI and all the rest of this tech, you’re going to have to submit to constant surveillance—by your devices or, in many cases, by the tech giants themselves. Apple’s bet is that you will trust it to do this: The company’s privacy stance is that it isn’t going to look at or share your data, and it will be encrypted so others can’t look at it, either.

Getting used to that won’t be easy. Just as getting in a stranger’s car or sleeping in a stranger’s home seemed crazy before Uber and Airbnb, the 2027 iPhone’s most important differentiator may be our willingness to accept things we can’t even fathom today.


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