The iPhone for the Next Ten Years

on June 29, 2017
Reading Time: 4 minutes

Given that this week marks the tenth anniversary of the iPhone going on sale, there’s lots of navel-gazing about the impact the iPhone has had on the industry (including my own take on Monday for subscribers). However, what I want to do today is think about which products in the market today might have a comparable impact to the iPhone over the next ten years.

I put this question to my Twitter followers, and got a whole range of interesting results, including:

  • Tesla (both cars and solar shingles)
  • Oculus Rift
  • Crispr
  • and the Nvidia DGX-1 for AI and machine learning!

Those are all fascinating answers, including a couple I never would have included in my own analysis here. But I have a different set of three possible products in mind, and I’ll talk about each of them below. As a reminder, what defined the impact of the iPhone was that it was a single product from a single company, and yet that product never achieved majority market share, but still managed to transform not just its own industry (smartphones) but both created and transformed others as well. So that’s the bar that any worthy successor has to clear.

Amazon Echo

To my mind, one of the products that has the best claims to this title over the next ten years is the Amazon Echo. Like the iPhone, it has essentially created a new category which really didn’t exist in the same way previously, and has captured the public imagination in ways few would have predicted. It’s done so with a new interface (much as the iPhone used its multi-touch interface as a key selling point) and has created value beyond Amazon’s own contributions through “Skills” or apps and integrations with other companies. In the process, it’s created a market that now also includes Google and will shortly include Apple, and that also includes many smaller manufacturers and products.

Apple Watch and AirPods

Although it might seem funny to include another Apple product (or two) in this analysis, these two feel emblematic enough of two emerging wearables categories to include them here as well. The Apple Watch is by far the most successful smartwatch out there, while AirPods promise to create a new category around the ears some have called “hearables”. More broadly, though, they’re part of a trend we’ll see in the coming years in which the functions of the smartphone will be increasingly delegated to other peripheral devices, whether merely as input and output devices in the short term or as powerful processors in their own right. These devices will over the next ten years increasingly take on tasks that smartphones have themselves taken over from other devices over the past ten years.

Microsoft HoloLens

I hesitate to include this device on this list, mostly because it’s far from being a mainstream product today and therefore isn’t really in the same category as the iPhone. But it’s perhaps the most high-profile example we have today of an AR headset, and that category as a whole does feel like it will be very important over the coming years in defining new interfaces, creating new markets, and generating tons of new value. More likely, though, it will be Magic Leap, Apple, or some other company which eventually brings a mass-market AR headset to market and truly creates a new category. For now, as I’ve written previously, AR will be dominated by the smartphone, but much of the work that’s done on smartphone AR will eventually be applicable to headset AR too. Much more than the Oculus Rift, which focuses on VR and therefore a smaller long-term addressable market, AR headsets feel like they’ll be a really important category ten years hence, even if the HoloLens doesn’t yet capture what that market will look like.

Google is MIA

One thing that struck me here is that no Google device is on the list – both Google and Microsoft have recently pushed into hardware, and while Microsoft’s HoloLens made my list with the caveats above, nothing Google has made yet has been anything other than just another entrant in an existing category. On the other hand, cloud services and the AI and machine learning that powers much of the next generation of those services will have a significant role over the next ten years, though no single product or service will have a massive impact.

Two other answers

However, ultimately, I think there are two other answers that are more compelling than any of the three I’ve just listed, and they are “the iPhone” and “none”. The reality is that the iPhone turned the smartphone into the biggest consumer electronics category the world has ever seen or is likely to see. The smartphone is going to become essentially ubiquitous around the world over the next few years, and no other product can hope to match that ubiquity, at least during the ten-year time horizon we’re talking about here. Voice speakers are a fascinating new category, and will grow significantly, but won’t be in a majority of homes for many years, and it’s smartphones that will continue to provide ubiquity for voice assistants. Accessories like smartwatches and bluetooth earpieces are just that – accessories to smartphones – and though they will take over smartphone functions as I described above, they will continue to meet the needs of subsets of smartphone users and be heavily tied to smartphones for the foreseeable future. Lastly, AR will be big in time, but again it’s through smartphones that the technology will have its broadest impact, while headsets serve a much smaller market even ten years from now.

As such, the iPhone and the smartphone market it inaugurated will continue to be the most influential over the next ten years, just as they were over the past ten. And no single new product in the market today will exert a comparable influence over the industry over the next ten years, even though we’ll see some fascinating new user interfaces, product categories, and changes in the way we all use technology and interact with each other and the world around us. As I’ve long argued, though, just as Apple shouldn’t shy away from new product categories because they can’t match the iPhone’s scale, neither should any other player in the market be cowed by the impossibility of matching the smartphone’s impact on the world. There are plenty of worthy places in today’s technology landscape to put effort and investment which will pay off handsomely in the coming years, and I’m looking forward to all the innovation that’s yet to come.