It is surprisingly difficult to name a life-changing piece of technology that came on to the scene in the last decade. Yes, the past 10 years were in many ways dominated by tech: the rise of the smartphone, of social media and ubiquitous communication, of online shopping and the growing power and value of the tech titans.
But all of these stories are really much older. The iPhone dates to 2007, Facebook and Twitter before that. The average age of tech’s big five – Microsoft, Apple, Facebook, Google and Amazon – is 30.
Newer companies such as Uber, WhatsApp and Spotify may have come to fore in the last decade, but they were born before 2010, while two technologies that did emerge in the middle of the decade – voice assistants such as Amazon’s Alexa, and wearables like Apple’s smartwatch – have become popular fixtures in many people’s lives, but in a somewhat peripheral way: they have augmented, rather than transformed our digital lifestyles.
In fact, the last decade has been more characterised by misses than hits. Despite a great deal of effort, new mediums such as 3D TV and Google Glass crashed and burned. Their successors, augmented reality and virtual reality, have long been promised but are yet to deliver, if in fact they ever do.
The biggest consumer tech trend has not been a proliferation of new devices, but an explosion of entertainment options. We now spend hours streaming video over the internet, not only on Netflix, Amazon Prime and YouTube, but on Instagram and TikTok. Social media has morphed from communication to content.
The time spent dedicated to video games has skyrocketed – both playing on smartphones and consoles, and watching others play on streaming services such as Amazon Twitch.
These trends have led to new jobs – professional influencers and e-sports players – that did not exist a decade ago. Even Apple, a company known for selling hardware, has outlined digital entertainment as its primary growth area.
Relying on breakthroughs of the past
This abundance of entertainment is no bad thing, but one can’t help but feel it is less relevant than the breakthroughs of prior decades – the rise of the desktop computer, the web and the smartphone.
And when it comes to electronics and engineering, the prospects for new inventions seem at their bleakest for some time. Wandering the halls and observing the press conferences of last week’s Consumer Electronics Show, the technology industry’s giant annual conference in Las Vegas, would do little to disabuse anybody of this notion.
While the show is typically filled with wacky gadgets that are closer to marketing stunts than real products, this year’s effort was notable for a lack of ideas from even the bigger companies.
Sony – a company that the electronics world once looked to for inspiration – rolled an electric car on to its stage, only to say it would never release it and merely intended the vehicle to be a vision of the future. Ludicrously, the other highlight of the Japanese firm’s press conference was the moment it unveiled the logo for its forthcoming games console.
Samsung fared little better. The highlight of its show was a ball-shaped personal robot that the company has no real plans to put on sale.
Too much should not be read into one event. Apple, Amazon and Google announced their own new products at other points in the year. But the fact that we look to just these three companies for innovation is not an encouraging sign.
Struggling to find the next big thing
Not only is the tech industry struggling to find the next big thing, but there are now signs it has stopped trying. Last year, start-ups developing tech for businesses raised more than consumer tech firms for the first time in five years. US investment in consumer electronics has declined for three straight years.
Perhaps there are reasons to be more optimistic. Tech innovations have a habit of not becoming clear until they are right on top of us. Smartwatches, which started out as attempts to replicate the smartphone’s features on the wrist, are coming into their own as devices that will monitor our health in meaningful ways. Voice assistants may improve to become central to our lives. Much vaunted developments such as augmented reality glasses, which beam holographic images over our vision, may still come good.
Mark Zuckerberg predicted last week that in the coming decades these devices will “redefine our relationship with technology”. A compelling explanation for such an invention is still yet to be outlined, even if technical hurdles can be overcome.
Instead, it may be time to consider another possibility. The constant state of reinvention we have come to expect in consumer electronics may be over, with the smartphone established as the device that will continue to form the basis of our digital lives.
There is a parallel with the automobile, a machine that saw an explosion of different forms before its essential design became fixed and has remained so for a century. The story then became one of continual refinement, rather than reinvention. If this analogy holds, then we may have passed the point of great innovations in consumer electronics.
Tech companies are likely to continue looking for life beyond the smartphone. But on the basis of the available evidence, there is little evidence they will succeed.
The Daily Telegraph, London
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