Leapfrogging the Phone

We all have a hard time learning from history. Just a few years ago, a phone was considered not capable enough to ever replace a PC. Time has proven all of us wrong. Smartwatches are already walking down the exact same path. Yet we seem to have forgotten.

The Screen Time feature on my three-year-old iPhone 7 reveals that I’m staring at it less than an hour a day, and the most used apps are Audible and Overcast, because of its “background activity”. Which should tell you that I’m not using it that much.

Despite September is coming and an iPhone 7 could be cataloged as collector’s piece by some Apple aficionados, I have no plans to upgrade my phone1. What’s more, I’ve been recently even questioning the need for it in a world where it has become the epicenter of the tech Universe. The conclusions have been startling2.

To begin this exploration I started by listing the jobs my iPhone currently does for me. From an impartial point of view, which problems or needs it is solving for. The checklist tops at seven:

  • Communications: sporadic email and texting, and calls.
  • Productivity: reminders, calendar events, and capturing quick notes.
  • Notifications3: despite having strong opinions around notifications and getting most of them delivered quietly in the background, both communications and productivity are somehow dependent.
  • Audio: streaming audio (music, podcasts, and audiobooks) to pair of Bluetooth headsets.
  • Health: tracking workouts and keeping up with my health metrics — i.e. HR, or VO2Max (usually through a heart-rate monitor).
  • Authentication and payments: 2FA for some applications and paying for stuff in the real world.
  • Navigation: moving around without getting lost is still a thing.

These are the seven things4 my phone currently does that a PC5 can’t, and will certainly never do. Most of them require a combination of mobility and proximity to the physical environment that spans beyond PCs’ nature.

You don’t need a phone for that.

The minimalist in me was yearning for a checklist that revealed a set of inconsequential features that I could easily live without. Ditch the phone for once and for all and subtract yet another device from the list of things I own. Unfortunately, that was far from the truth. The checklist contained certain features that are still “imperative” to function in our modern society without undergoing massive trade-offs.

However, it revealed a far more interesting insight. None of the listed items are enabled by virtue of the phone’s nature or form factor. They have been either inherited from other computing platforms or built around its convenience and omnipresence. In other words, one can’t help but conclude that I don’t need a phone for that. These jobs are nowadays dispatched on a phone because, again, it is convenient and omnipresent. But I’d argue that most of them could be better addressed by a smaller, closer, and more personal device.

Just for the sake of the argument let’s presume that such a device, the one that is better suited to deliver the functionality presented on the checklist, is a wearable, a smartwatch of sorts.

What you can do in a phone, you can do in a smartwatch.

I’m sure that the very moment I instilled this smartwatch idea, inevitably, large doses of skepticism started piling up in your mind. Skepticism in the sense that what you can do in a phone you can’t do in a smartwatch.

While true, to some extent, when faced with this argument I’m immediately reminded of a brilliant Benedict Evans article from 2015. Where he eloquently discussed this precise idea, but between PCs and phones.

Instead of thinking about the constraints of mobile — of the things you can’t do because the screen is smaller and there’s no keyboard — we should rather think of the PC as having the basic, cut-down, limited version of the internet, because it only has the web. It’s the mobile that has the whole internet.

His point was, and remains, spot on. Not only he made the case against the phone “not being capable enough”, but went even further by flipping the argument and suggesting that the “lesser” device was instead the PC.

He realized that the Internet as a whole, not a browser in a window as we knew it, was evolving around a new breadth of experiences enabled by cameras, GPS, or accelerometers. Necessary components the PC completely lacked. Hence to get the full Internet experience (again, not the full browser experience) you must now do it through a mobile device, not the other way around.

Walking down this path, we’ll encounter a world immersed in a revolution that is transforming the way we fundamentally think of the Internet. On one hand, IoT has swamped the market with an endless assortment of connected devices, constantly generating tons of data from its environment. On the other, technology has become more personal with wearable devices, also generating massive amounts of data coming from our bodies.

The IoT is all about bridging the gap between the digital and the physical, offline world we all live in. A daring quest our phones are ill-equipped to deal with.

Rather sooner than later, the phone will be bypassed.

All of this was probably a hyperbolized dissertation to make a rather simple point: sooner than later, for some outliers that already spend more time than they should in front of their PCs, no phone will be needed. They’d go straight to a smartwatch as their default mobile choice. A trend I can see nothing but grow. Not because more people will use PCs, but because smartwatches will become more capable. A story we’ve already seen unfolding between phones and PCs.

Coming back full circle to the aforementioned checklist, nearly all items could be already dispatched with a wearable device. Yet there are still a few pitfalls here and there. However, to be totally fair, each of them has seen massive improvements in recent years. Here’s the list of blockers preventing a human from becoming smartwatch-only.

  • Speech recognition has to improve if it wants to fully replace the keyboard as an input mechanism. The society also has to get comfortable with us “dictating emails” on the subway.
  • The tradeoff between cellular connection and battery life still remains suboptimal for a full phone handover.
  • Most smartwatches are not available as standalone products but exist as dependent satellites orbiting around a phone6.
  • On a related note, most carriers still don’t treat smartwatches as first-class citizens in the network. Its contract is usually bound to a primary device, again, a phone.

Just a few years ago, this shortlist would have had a dozen more items. Things like onboard cellular connectivity, dedicated app stores, audio streaming, or dictation and speech recognition where nowhere to be seen among its capabilities. The amount of progress has been astonishing. Which makes me think that crossing the remaining items is just a matter of months, not years.

We are getting closer than ever to a place where our primary (and probably only) mobile device could become a wearable — aka smartwatch. Which was a long way to say that I won’t be upgrading my iPhone this year. Neither the next one. I’d rather get a hold on it and wait until we get to the place where it can be totally leapfrogged. Go straight to a smartwatch.

  1. All references to a “phone” allude to “smartphones” or any variation of a mobile, Internet-enabled computing device that is not a wearable. More than ten years after the iPhone was introduced, one can assume most phones are already quite “smart”.
  2. This is a thought experiment grounded on my particular use cases and workflows. First of all, I could spend +12 hours a day in front of my laptop, a pattern I do not consider the average by current societal standards. On top of that, tasks that have become a mobile-preferred experience for most, such as email, texting, or browsing the Internet, I still prefer doing in a computer.
  3. Both communication and productivity (and their corresponding notifications) a PC can also do. As pointed out in (2) I actually prefer to do it there. Yet these use cases refer mostly to on the go situations, where a PC is not available.
  4. The absent category that would probably surprise the most is photography. While it is true that occasionally I take a picture here and there, it is definitely a feature I can live without.
  5. For all intents and purposes, references to a “PC” allude to desktop and laptop computers. One might still argue that a smartphone is, in fact, a PC of sorts, and it’d be totally correct. Yet to make a clearer cut, I’m sticking to the legacy meaning the label “PC” still entitles.
  6. The early years of the iPhone featured the exact same dependency and it wasn’t until iOS5 that it received the ability to start fresh with no need to tether the device to iTunes. One can imagine the same trend unfolding again, this time between the iPhone and Apple Watch.
First published on July 24, 2019