Homo habilis (meaning "handy man") used Oldowan tools – stones with a few flakes chipped off – for cutting and piercing hides and for woodworking. As we evolved through Homo erectus, then Neanderthals and into Homo sapiens, our growing intelligence and imagination enabled us to envision new tools and to bring them to life.
Early complex instruments harnessed the natural world – the lodestone compass came from 400 BC. Mechanics empowered us to create devices with moving parts – such as the handgun (700) and the pocketwatch (1500). Electronics delivered batteries and computational power (see flashlight in 1896, calculator in 1957 and mobile phone in 1973).
As is true today, those in possession of new tools were able to perform tasks that others couldn’t, giving the "haves" significant competitive advantage over the "have-nots". So it’s hardly surprising that we chose/choose to share them only with family members and trusted friends.
With the exception of the handgun, today’s smartphones perform all of the above tasks and are irrefutably the ultimate personal technology. They are reliable, powerful computers that have forever changed the way we interact with each other.
Most significantly, we treat them like lovers – carrying them next to our bodies all day, imbuing them with our personalities and relying on them to communicate with our nearest and dearest in times of need.
Given the deeply personal relationships we build with our smartphones, it’s very hard to see a future without devices of this kind.
The reveal of folding handsets at MWC earlier this year – pretty much the only major new feature – proved that these devices have been almost entirely commoditised.
The arrival of Apple's iPhone in 2007 catalysed explosive growth in smartphones sales – even against the backdrop of global economic recession. Our frenzied excitement for new models and features fuelled continuous growth through to a worldwide sales peak in 2015-2016 of about 1.4 billion new devices annually. And then the tide turned.
Trading figures from the final quarter of 2017 indicated a significant drop in global sales – and this was confirmed by 2018's full-year numbers.
Innovation has stagnated – either the major players have run out of ideas or they cut investment as core markets approached saturation levels. Either way, the truth is clear: for many consumers, the thrill of unboxing a new device has gone and they’re increasingly happy to stick with their current smartphone.
In the US, the frequency of smartphone renewal has increased from 20.6 to 24.1 months. Apple responded last year by allowing older iPhone owners to replace their battery for $29, rather than spending $1,000 on a new one.
Despite the lack of significant leaps, smartphones will continue to evolve into more personal universal all-purpose devices. They’ll become smaller, more powerful and inherently flexible, from foldable and bendable to shrinkable and expandable.
Users will expect comprehensive personalisation of the physical device and interaction methods. Machine intelligence will learn consumer preferences and habits automatically. In time, smartphones will become super-light flexible computers that can be embedded in clothes, requiring entirely hands-free interfaces.
Two massive areas of upcoming development will be the ability to connect effortlessly with other devices and the innovative services layered on top of these new ecosystems.
An important role of our future personal devices will be managing our interactions with the rapidly expanding Internet of Things. We’ll need new ways of supporting behaviours such as giving, and revoking, consent with a widening range of smart devices – everything from wearables and speakers to digital assistants, nearby screens and robots.
And as infonomics – the commercialisation of data – gathers mainstream momentum, consumers will need tools to manage their data portfolios and extract the earned value.
As we become better connected, the potential for new creative opportunities will rise exponentially. Brands will have access to consumer data from a much broader range of devices and the power to create multisensory, multi-touchpoint experiences, delivered in real time to hyper-connected, local ecosystems.
With respect to the next-generation services that will start arriving on our phones, Google Stadia is a great example. The recently unveiled platform will stream better-than-console-quality games on to any device, without needing to install anything and regardless of hardware.
A week later, Apple announced plans for Arcade, its own cloud-based games services, with Amazon and Microsoft expected to follow suit. The share prices of numerous market incumbents have fallen since this round of disruptive declarations and the arrival of these services will revolutionise the gaming industry.
Apple also announced its plans to launch renewed music, video, and news and magazine offerings. As 5G rolls out, we’ll experience lower latency (faster responses) on our devices, further increasing the power of these new services.
Irrespective of what you read, there will be primary personal devices in our pockets for a few years yet. What’s already clear is that, in the near future, next-generation entertainment services and increased connectivity will be far more important than the actual smartphone.
Alastair Cole is director of creative technology at Engine