The future of mobile: Less phone, more operating system
It’s still early in 2014, and news from the Mobile World Congress talks about a next generation of smartphones that will blow people’s minds, with dazzling hardware advances, great software, and new features that will make life easier, healthier and more fun.
Or will they? What if the Galaxy S5 is just as good as the S4 for 99 percent of our needs? After all, recent history has shown that the “revolutionary” 64-bit chip in Apple’s iPhone 5S has generated less than 1 percent of real value to 99 percent of its users.
The introduction of iOS 7 was actually the excuse I needed to try out Android. I went ahead and made the transition last year. I still remember the media and friends calling iOS 7 “revolutionary” — that is, repeating the words proclaimed by Apple. Aside from a few interesting introductions, like the support for iBeacons, iOS 7 was a time-consuming design catch-up Apple had to play. And even die-hard iOS users needed some time to adapt to the idiosyncrasies the new version of the mobile operating system (OS) had introduced.
Innovation in smartphone hardware and software has clearly stalled. Smartphones could become smaller, but now people seem to want big screens. And it appears to be too soon for the introduction of radically different form factors breaking the mold Apple left. I believe the wave of wearables will play a critical role to change this, but not so soon. That said, what could happen in the near term to bring innovation and progress for consumers?
We now live in a phase where only software can bring breakthrough innovation to smartphones. Software that runs both in the smartphones and in the cloud, but especially in the cloud, and that can make the device function according to the owner’s needs, in context. As a matter of fact, context is going to be so dramatically important to us that I wouldn’t be surprised if we eventually feel we should drop the term “smartphone” and adopt something like “contextual computer” to explain a class of new devices that will emerge. And for the applications that those gadgets will run, the best terminology will be along the lines of “adaptive mobile operating systems” or “adaptive applications,” because they adapt to the context, the user, and usage.
In the case of Apple’s iOS 7, I was anxiously hoping Apple would introduce a new way to navigate through the numerous apps we install. I think it’s inconceivable that after seven years, we still rely on swiping across several virtual shelves of applications to find what we want to use. Folders were created to help with organization, only to make things worse. From the application development perspective they are that type of bad solution you are forced to adopt when everything else seems too complicated and laborious to work out. From the user perspective, they’re just a way to tuck the mess away. Although some Android lovers will argue that Android is better at this, I still think this is an appalling issue in both platforms. I wonder if the fight for market share is what prevents new user-interface paradigms from arising, bringing along adoption risks. And the struggles of Windows’ Metro interface might be a sign that this is the case.
Most of us have been using smartphones for more than five years now, and every single thing we’ve done with them, when and where we did it, was potentially tracked by the mobile OS provider. So if they’ve been paying attention to the data, they’ve been learning more about us and our habits then any other company in human history. Sure, Facebook also is a platform that can learn about us, but it’s only one piece of a multifaceted daily journey we carry on that only the mobile OS provider can fully read. Yet mobile OS providers like Apple, Google, and Microsoft haven’t yet used this knowledge to transform our experiences with the “best friends” we carry in our pockets. And yes, it’s possible to learn about user behavior without infringing on their privacy rights. This is what an adaptive mobile OS would be all about.
Aside from the occasional new app you download from time to time, your relationship with your smartphone is comprised of a lot less variability than you may think. Everyday you use only a small percentage of all of your smartphone’s capabilities and the apps you have packed it with. And not surprisingly, you will adhere to habits that will occur regularly during the week and which will depend on the time of the day. Even the changes in those habits may be interpreted if context is taken into consideration.
An adaptive mobile OS is the one that will learn with general user behavior, from the preferences you set, the places where you take your phone out of the pocket, what and how often, for how long, etc. It will also compare those habits to the ones from people around you and everywhere. All of that to anticipate what you need. And any mistake made will be an opportunity for it to learn. Did it suggest the Facebook app to you but you opened WhatsApp instead? It can then check the circumstances and adapt its model to you, so that next time it can make a better guess.
Aviate, an android launcher recently acquired by Yahoo, seems to be trying to implement a layer of adaptive applications on top of Android but still does it in a very limited way. It will use your location and time of the day to show you different “spaces” where contextual information and related apps are presented for quick access. It does a fairly good job of bringing some order to the chaos of your home screens, but it fails to learn with your behavior, a critical point for adding real value to the user. I think Aviate would’ve been better off had it been acquired by Google. Not only would it have a deeper integration with Android, but it would also leverage all the research Google is doing with artificial intelligence. Still, it’s a great inspiration for future mobile OSs.
Speaking of Google, just today it launched Android Wear, the software with a whole deal of potential to bring some structure to a messy wearable devices market. In the video below, it’s clear that the focus of the product is to bring relevant information delivered to you in context. It’s an always-on Google Now, on your wrist. Android Wear is a great example of an adaptive “OS” that leverages the big brain Google runs on its servers.
Our lives will be facilitated by myriad adaptive applications running on different devices, with different sensors, all of them collecting tidbits about everything we do, and feeding big digital brains that can adapt applications to our needs simply because they get to know us.
This is not a futuristic idea. It’s the dawn of a future when technology isn’t turned on or off anymore. Technology becomes a ubiquitous web of supporting events that will motivate us to do what we like to do. All for a better, more enjoyable life.
Márcio “Mars” Cyrillo is executive director at CIT, creator of smart applications that add a layer of intelligence to business. He is currently responsible for global marketing operations, the global partnership with Google and CIT’s strategic early involvement with the emergent market of smart applications (CIT Digital Brain). With CIT since 1999, Mars holds a PhD in applied physics from Universidade Estadual de Campinas and two MBAs in sales management and entrepreneurship from Fundacao Getulio Vargas and Babson College. Mars is driven by constant improvement in: technology, his running, and the best lens to capture the NYC skyline.
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