Over the last few years, a great deal of discussion has focused on the importance of voice as the next big interface. The explosive growth of smart assistants, in everything from speakers to thermostats to kitchen appliances, bolsters the argument that voice is going to play a big roll in how we interact with technology going forward. But throughout the last few weeks, I’ve been struck by just how much attention good old-fashioned screens have been getting in new product announcements. From Apple’s recent launch of new, larger-screened iPhones, iPads, and Apple Watches, to new smart assistants with screens, to Samsung’s teasing debut of its first foldable smartphone, the fact is screens still matter a great deal.
Bigger is Better
I’ve been living with Apple’s new Series 4 watch and the iPhone XS Max and have been struck by just how impactful the new, larger screens has been to how I use the devices. On the watch, I’m using the Infograph watch face that puts a huge amount of information on screen. While I look forward to Apple adding more customizable complications to that watch face (I’d like to have access to messages there), the information density is amazing, making it possible for me to easily access most of the apps I use daily right on the home screen. And the larger screen has led to another usage change: I find myself consuming more content on the watch. No, I’m not going to read a 2000-word news story there, but the larger size makes it comfortable enough to read messages, short emails, and news alerts right on the watch instead of shifting over to the phone.
The huge screen on the iPhone XS Max has led to an evolution in my usage of that device, too. It’s large enough that I find myself perfectly content to consume more content on it than any phone before it. Traditionally, when I get home, I move from the phone to the tablet, but with this phone, I will often make it well into the evening before I think to make the switch. Which begged the question: With the iPhone getting bigger, what happens to the iPad?
Apple answered that question last week with the launch of its new 11-inch and 12.9-inch iPad Pros. The 11-inch product effectively offers extra screen real estate in a form factor that’s roughly the same size as the previous 10.5-inch product. The real show stopper, however, is the 12.9-inch product. The previous version of this larger iPad was so big it felt a bit unwieldy in hand, but this new product feels dramatically more comfortable to hold and use. While the starting price of $999 will be tough for many to swallow, I expect that big, beautiful screen to drive many to buy this product.
Voice Plus Display is Smarter
One of the most interesting product trends of late has been the move by vendors to add screens to smart assistant products. Amazon did it first with the Echo Play, and the company has continued to iterate in the space with a second generation of that product, as well as the smaller Echo Spot. Google and its partners have recently entered the space, too. I’ve been using Lenovo’s Smart Display with Google Assistant, and I’ve been massively impressed with the product. I’ve written before about how Amazon Echos have taken over our house (six units and counting). But after I installed the Lenovo product in my office, I find myself going to it to ask questions more and more often. I am consistently struck by how much more useful a smart assistant can be with a screen attached. From showing photos, time, and temperature in default mode, to displaying the results of questions asked (in addition to announcing them), to letting me initiate a task by voice but complete it via the touch screen, the simple fact is the whole experience with the smart assistant is smarter with a display.
Dual Screens and Foldable Screens
So, the bottom line here is that even as voice becomes more prevalent, for now, and likely well into the future, screens will continue to play an important role in how we interact with technology. Which is why so many companies are feverishly working to bring to market new dual-screen notebook and foldable screen smartphone products.
I’ve been skeptical about the use cases for products like these. And when Samsung showed off this week its prototype foldable phone, my first response was: What problem is this solving? Followed by: Who wants a double-wide phone screen? While I’m not convinced that the first generation of these products will drive a ton of utility for most people, and the software challenges around the impact to user interface will be harder to address then most people realize, the fact is they could solve a problem: People’s desire for ever bigger screens.
The first generation of these products are important and necessary steps the industry must undertake. I’ve been following the display industry for many years, and while there have been many, many prototypes, the real learning happens when real products ship. So while I likely won’t be standing in any lines to buy the first dual screen or foldable device, I am very interested in the next-generation of form factors and use cases that will spring from what they learn.
At the end of the day, it’s all about offering even more screen real estate in existing or smaller form factors. While voice continues to improve as a mode of interfacing with technology, it still has a long way to go. In the near term, that means companies will continue to find ways to bring larger physical displays to products. Eventually, we’ll get to a point where the only way to offer a bigger screen will be in a pair of augmented reality glasses, where the entire world in front of you is the screen.