Will Smartphones Consolidate or Fragment?

on May 9, 2014

With the emergence of wearables as a new device category, we’re witnessing a shift of certain capabilities of the smartphone to separate devices that extend its functionality beyond the device itself. Is this part of a broader shift or a temporary phenomenon that will eventually be reversed?

Let’s look at some of the functions smartphones incorporate – each of them could be done better by alternatives:

Smartphone function alternatives

The best device is the one you have with you

Yet here we are, using our smartphones for all of these things, even when better alternatives are available. Why? What does it tell us about how smartphones and other connected devices are likely to evolve? I think the answer is in this well worn saying about one of these functions, the camera:

The best camera is the one you have with you

This is fundamentally why the smartphone has absorbed all of these functions over time. Yes, alternatives could do the jobs better but the smartphone is always with us, perhaps more than any other object in our lives. Its ubiquity means it’s available when the alternatives are not and therefore becomes our primary device for many functions that would actually be done better by dedicated devices. This started a long time ago with the mobile phone itself as a telephony device. Call quality was terrible compared with landline phones, calls dropped, and it was phenomenally expensive in the early days. But it was ubiquitous. It worked nearly everywhere and allowed us to do things that previously required a wired connection in a specific location – and that’s why it took off despite its obvious inferiority.

Except when it isn’t

However, the counterpoint to this is it theoretically only applies when you don’t have the dedicated device available. What happens when you do? The history of telephony teaches us that, although this was true in the early days, it has long since stopped being true. Statistics are bandied about by everyone who benefits from the trend so it’s hard to be sure about the exact number, but a significant number of calls are now made from within easy reach of more reliable, cheaper to use and higher quality home phones. Convenience and habit now drive us to use the nominally inferior smartphone even when the alternatives are close at hand.

As with telephony, it’s likely this behavior will eventually happen with other functions too. Some smartphone video viewing now takes place within easy reach of large screen TVs, mobile web browsing takes place in rooms that also contain PCs, mobile games are played feet from an Xbox and so on. This behavior is likely to continue to spread. In almost all cases it’s because the smartphone is close at hand and performs these functions more easily and casually than their dedicated alternatives.

The smartphone at the core of experiences that go beyond it

But there are also cases where we do take advantage of the alternatives:

  • An increasing number of smartphone users are finding the 16GB hard drives on their phones quickly run out of room for storing all the multi-megapixel pictures and HD (and increasingly slo-mo) video they capture, and rely on iCloud, Google+, Dropbox and other cloud storage services to offload storage
  • AirPlay, Chromecast and other technologies are allowing people to stream video content from their smartphones to TVs
  • CarPlay allows drivers to use the in-car display and audio input/output to interact with Siri and other functions of the smartphone, and more generic Bluetooth allows a subset of this functionality on most modern cars
  • Fitness trackers are extending both the range and accuracy of data captured by sensors beyond what is possible on the smartphone
  • Wearables are allowing notifications and other functions to be extended from the smartphone to exterior displays.

In all these cases, the smartphone remains an integral part of the experience but increasingly one that remains in the pocket or the center console in the car or on the couch beside us, while the core of the experience happens on other displays, sound systems and devices.

Consolidation or fragmentation?

Over time, as some of these external devices gain greater functionality – their own CPUs, GPUs, wide area connectivity and so on – it’s possible some of the functions performed by the smartphone will actually shift to these external devices, especially wearables, without needing the smartphone as a hub or intermediary. With cloud storage and processing on the back end, these devices could eventually subsume much of what the smartphone does, such as streaming audio and video to and from appropriate endpoints as available. The ultimate vision of the future may be one where we carry just a tiny device providing identity and authentication while making use of ambient audio and visual interfaces, cloud processing and storage.

On the other hand, the smartphone may continue absorbing functions from other devices – just as it has with point and shoot cameras, dedicated eReaders, portable game consoles and others. Smartphones already incorporate enough sensors to capture motion, heart rate and other key data, and this will only increase over time. As prices and sizes for storage, memory, processing and other functions continue to fall, the gap between the capability of smartphones and their dedicated alternatives will shrink, making the alternatives even less appealing except as extensions of the smartphone — such as TV screens and in-car audio systems.

I’d say it’s too early to tell at this point which way these trends will go – whether the smartphone will slowly absorb other functions as it has so many already, or whether the proliferation of wearable devices and their even greater ubiquity will cause a fragmentation of the functions of the smartphone. Most likely it’s a combination of the two. But every smartphone vendor should be thinking very hard about how this will all evolve and what their role will be.