Sci-fi didn't prepare me for the smartphone. As a mild pulp junkie, I've come to terms with time dilation, cloning, and sentience of all types, but Asimov, Clarke and Dick forgot to tell me about the defining handheld accessory of the 21st century. "Soon, dear reader, the most vital physical object you own will be a sliver of glass you can tap on to learn, emote, play and connect with the known universe." We have Three Laws for robots, but not a single law for swipe gestures.
Are humans smartphone native?
It's hard to imagine self-expression and fulfillment in our current technological landscape without our smartphones. We judge the relevance and future prospects of a company on how well it "understands mobile." Is it "mobile native"? Even better.
But are humans smartphone native? The power of a smartphone is that it condenses so many technologies and capabilities into a single, ever-present device. Steve Jobs' original pitch for the iPhone described "three revolutionary products": an iPod, a phone, and an internet communicator. His big reveal? It's all of those in one. Now our phone does even more: it's an HD video camera, a pedometer, a game console, a photo editing studio, an alarm clock, a flashlight, a TV remote... yes, to confirm that tired phrase, "there's an app for that."
And yet, the smartphone is the "best" version of none of these things. Its power is in synergy and availability. Just like your best camera is the one you have with you, the best of any of these things is the one you have with you. The smartphone adds an internet connection to that old adage. The best camera is the one you have with you and can post the picture to Instagram five seconds later.
As good as smartphones get, they can never replace DSLRs because physics. They can never replace flashlights because physics. Your laptop will always be better for typing, your Kindle will be better for ebooks, your iPad will be better for Netflix, and your TV remote was probably shitty anyway.
What if there wasn't a phone in your pocket?
With the rise of "wearable" devices, we're witnessing an interesting dance as new concepts duplicate, augment, serve, and replace the responsibilities of the smartphone. Simultaneously, the smartphone co-opts any functionality it can. Fitness devices could be the first to die, with new motion-sensing chips for smartphones that sip battery life and speak directly to your apps. Smartwatches seem inevitable, but they're easily choked by the flood of information a smartphone can supply, and the price tag is always hard to justify when there's already a phone in your pocket.
But what if there wasn't a phone in your pocket? I know, that's a crazy idea. But it's not immoral.
A while back I lost my iPhone's charging cable. I tried to buy a replacement at 7-11, but it didn't work. And so I went without a phone for a week. It really wasn't that bad.
It turns out I'm at my laptop a lot. Like, a lot. And for some reason everyone I text with on a regular basis has an iPhone. So I used iMessage, and it was wonderful. I FaceTimed and Skyped, too. Email is on laptops. So are video games. It really wasn't so bad, I promise. And a smartphoneless life is only going to be easier going forward.
Phone calls, for instance. Many people reach for their earbuds when they need to have a long -- or perhaps merely successful -- phone conversation. But there's no law that those earbuds need to be plugged into a 4.3-inch slab. They're just as effective when plugged into my laptop, and will be equally happy with any bi-directional audio interface. The phone just happens to be the most convenient, and capable, one of those in your possession at the moment.
And, oddly enough, the way phones are designed currently makes them non-optimal for phone calls. Because physics. There's a reason traditional antennas, microphones, and speakers look nothing like the Galaxy S4, and yet those are the primary assets I rely on when I'm making a phone call. In fact, I think a big reason everyone "hates" phone calls and "prefers" text messaging, is the compromises phone manufacturers have made over the years to match the iPhone form factor.
But are smartphones really ideal for even texting? The laptop keyboard I'm typing this article on would beg to differ. Now, it might be absurd to imagine everyone carrying a full-sized keyboard in their purse, ready to brandish it for every "lol" and "omw," but it's become obvious to me that wherever I am, all text should be written on the best-possible device available for the job. Most of the time, I'm at my desk. Which means, most of the time I should be typing "lol" and "omw" on my laptop. Apple's iMessage, for all its incredible, user-antagonistic missteps, has made this possible. I think it sets a new bar for "phone" usability, and I would be surprised if in five years the majority of "text messages" I send aren't done from a desktop or tablet or Matrix-style brain jack.
I want to use the best tool for the given job
If I'm even sending "text messages" at all. Perhaps more than anything, the recent issues Apple's had with iMessage show how fragile and weak our relationship is with "our" text messages, associated with "our" phone numbers. Third party services like WhatsApp (recently bought by Facebook for $19 billion) make the relationship more explicit, and make clearer promises about compatibility. We might be a ways away from US phone users relying primarily on third party messaging services, but the quality, innovation, and adoption of these services is only growing. I can't say the same for carrier-owned text messaging. As we move to new ways of expressing ourselves, and connecting with one another -- SnapChat's unique take on text and video chat, for instance -- allowing a carrier and a single device to own that experience seems even more illogical.
So anyway, that's my rant. It's not that I hate phones, it's just that I want to use the best tool for the given job. I want to focus on the goal of "talking to people," "writing things," and "capturing the beauty of the natural world" and escape the inherent limitations of smartphone implementation details like "minutes" and "software keyboards" and "camera apps".
Maybe, someday, if we get over this habit of cramming everything into a smartphone, the future can start looking a bit more like the future.