All smartphones will become obsolete by the end of 2018. They might share their fate with the laptops, eBook readers, tablets, phablets, consoles and myriads of devices we have in early 2017. In this article, I will explore the cause of this imminent and unavoidable revolution. I will talk about the next device type, the usurper that will dethrone the smartphone and replace many devices with a single ingenious solution. Finally, we will see what can you do to gain a competitive advantage in the OneDevice era.
The smartphone changed the world, and a new era began in the mobile world. This was not the first mobile revolution. The car phone, then the first handheld mobile phones changed communication. Essentially, they were only communication devices, merely technical improvements over Bell’s first telephone from 1876. On the other hand, the smartphone was a true jump in functionality, widening the use cases of a communication apparatus, until the point where the voice communication capabilities became secondary.
In 2018 smartphones will naturally evolve into laptop and console replacements. When it comes to processing power, they are already there. If you look at the hardware in high-end smartphones, it’s obvious, that they far surpass the hardware found in previous generation consoles and laptops. Let’s take the latest Snapdragon 820 or 821 system on a chip solution, found in smartphones available at the time of writing this article (February 2017) such as the Samsung Galaxy S7 or Google Pixel. Snapdragon 820 or 821 enables 4K video streaming, virtual reality, high-resolution 3D gaming and of course multitasking between video editing, writing emails and working on spreadsheets. Without delving deep into semiconductor device fabrication, even the current 14-nanometre technology in Snapdragon 821 will be overshadowed by the 10nm technology featured in Samsung’s Galaxy S8, likely to be released in April 2017.
From the user’s point of view, having many different devices is rarely a goal, unless you belong to the small, but vocal minority of tech geeks. The drive to have a laptop, a reader, a tablet, a console and smartphone as separate devices comes from the limitations of those devices. The current smartphone’s biggest limitation is not the screen size or the lack of real keyboard. It’s possible to connect a keyboard, a monitor or even a huge 4K TV to your smartphone. Yes, it’s a multi-step process and not something you would want to do multiple times a day, but not game-breaking. The real issue is that the controls, apps and the overall user experience are not optimised for this scenario. Even in a seemingly ideal situation, when you connect a Samsung tablet or smartphone to a Samsung display, you will get a suboptimal user experience. This is not Samsung’s fault, and only in a small part coming from the Android operating system. The problem is that mobile apps and games are not optimised for the OneDevice age. A true catch-22 situations, because the lack of app and game support delays the emergence of the OneDevice.
In the past, manufacturers attempted to create the OneDevice by starting from a smartphone and creating docking stations to emulate other devices. Motorola Atrix was probably one of the first attempts. The device, launched in 2011 was way ahead of its time. They offered a multimedia dock and a laptop dock. The lapdock, as they called it, featured an eleven-inch screen, an internal battery and probably one of the worst keyboards and trackpads of its time. The innovative Ubuntu-based desktop environment ran a desktop version of Firefox and enabled you to access applications on the phone itself. The problem was this mobile view. Although you could access the apps, they were still mobile apps in a window, delivering a terrible laptop experience.
What will happen in 2017? What made me write about the OneDevice era? Nintendo Switch is the answer. This console will be launched on March 3, 2017. It will have three distinct modes. A TV mode, similar to all current game consoles. You can attach it to your TV, and play using the controller. The novelty comes when you remove it from the dock, and put the screen on a table. You can use it similar to a gaming laptop, but still controlling it with a controller. This is the tabletop mode. You can also transform the Switch to something similar to a tablet or larger phone in handheld mode. Contrary to previous attempts to create the OneDevice, Nintendo’s new console managed to solve the problem at least partially. What’s even more important here is that all games and apps released for this platform will need to provide an acceptable user experience in all three modes. This is enforced by Nintendo. If game developers want to succeed, as in sell millions of copies, they need to create great gaming experience in all modes.
Switch showed a gaming solution, but what about other applications? Probably Switch will never be ideal for office use, but other devices will. At the moment, the problem is not the lack of operating systems capable of handling the demands of the OneDevice era. To me, Windows 10 looks like the best contender for the first real OneDevice operating system. Don’t get me wrong, latest Android and Ubuntu releases work great on different screen sizes, with different input methods from touch screens to keyboard and mouse. But Windows has the most applications for work, entertainment and most games, and puts Microsoft in the best spot. But, then again, Microsoft demonstrated a few times, that they can lose the race from a pole position start.
What needs to happen? The simplest solution would be a powerful phone running Windows 10, with a long lasting battery and some innovative docking solutions, that enable easy switching between different modes. Phone to tablet, to laptop and to TV. In 2017, we arrived at a point where no ground-breaking innovation is needed to reach OneDevice. Just a dedicated team to put everything together, a critical mass of apps supporting this, and probably some serious marketing activity. But nothing beyond the possibilities of big corporations like Microsoft, Samsung or maybe even Apple. (When was the last time, when Apple came out with something truly innovative?)
OneDevices will emerge. I’m sure that after the first major success many corporations will follow suit. This will lead to the most important question of this article: How can you gain a competitive advantage in the OneDevice era. Being agile and adaptable to change is the key to success both in business and in the evolution of species. To be able to adapt and change course, you need to research and understand the users. This is something you can and should start doing, even today. Lab based or remote user research can show how your software, hardware or any solution works today. Even more importantly, it can show the behaviours and expectations of the users. You can learn what works for the users, and what doesn’t from research. This will give you a genuine competitive advantage.
As a product designer or UX expert, you should buy the emerging OneDevices. Not just because Mario Kart 8 might be great fun for the whole family, but mainly to get a first glimpse into the future. You don’t even need to wait until March. You can buy a Raspberry Pi 3 or similar very small single-board computer, and create your OneDevice prototype for testing purposes.
After you are done with your research, put your creative genius to work. Solve the user’s problems, or scratch your own itch. Start building software or even hardware for the OneDevice era. Maybe the change will start with you.