More folds, fewer phones, and a ton of AI in the smartphone of the future

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THE MIGHTY SMARTPHONE is facing a reckoning—at least from a sales perspective. During the 2022 holiday season, smartphone shipments declined more than 18 percent from the same period the year before. In general, last year had the lowest annual shipment total since 2013. Research firm IDC said this was due to “significantly dampened consumer demand, inflation, and economic uncertainties.”

One needs only to do a double-take at their grocery bill to feel these pressures, but macroeconomics aside, the smartphone itself probably deserves some of the blame (or credit) for our waning interest. Smartphones are, actually, amazing devices. That’s why we’re so addicted to them and why, in so many places around the globe, most people have one. You don’t even need to spend a grand anymore to get a premium phone. Have you used a $300 or $400 phone lately? They’re pretty darn good. Phones are also becoming more repairable; why buy a new one when you can just swap in a better battery? The used or refurbished market is growing too.

So what’s the future of the phone itself in this era of slowing sales? As WIRED commemorates its 30th year as a publication, we asked more than half a dozen technologists, builders, designers, analysts, and futurists their thoughts on what’s next for the smartphone. Some focused on the form factor. Others said sophisticated silicon will help us identify “real” media versus fake or AI-generated facsimiles. And a few predicted that actual phone calls will fall by the wayside. Still, almost all of them believe that the smartphone is something we’ll continue to carry with us, both literally and metaphorically. The smartphone market may never see the same meteoric rise that it did in the 2010s, but the all-powerful pocket computer is here to stay.

Below are five of their responses to the question: What does the smartphone, and our usage of the smartphone, look like in 10 years?

Tony Fadell, principal at Build Collective: I’m not a soothsayer, so I don’t know exactly what’s going to happen. But I do know what’s going on at the technology level. I think we’re going to continue to see better and better displays. Brighter colors and better power management and stuff like that. But also, the pixel density is going to be really great, and it’s going to be a question of, what else can you hide underneath the display?

Foldables will be a niche; they’re very expensive, and they’re going to continue to be bulkier because of the nature of mechanical systems. So I think there will be a specific place or specific needs for those.

More specifically, though, I think the connection between the pixel that you see and the CPU and the graphics cores will be fully encrypted. So right now, when we say something’s encrypted, it’s from the device to the server. It’s encrypted in transit, or in storage. In the future, things will be encrypted between chips and between input-output. And this is because you’re going to want to know something was real. So when you capture a voice, or a photo, or a video, it’s being processed through a specific core, and it’s being stamped. It’s verifying that it was not a deepfake, it was not doctored in some way or photoshopped or filtered.

I also think we’ll see more compute power embedded in headsets. Here’s something I was working on three or four years ago. [Fadell pulls out a thin, gray, behind-the-ear pair of headphones.] You just put them behind your ear. That’s it, no cell phone needed. I can’t tell you where I was building these, but the issue was it was just a standard voice interface before, not a chat interface. But in the future, your phone can be tucked away and you can talk into these and actually have a natural conversation as opposed to always having to use your phone and keyboard and everything.

And I’ve been very clear on this: Fuck the metaverse. I’ve said it many times. I think VR is incredibly great for certain things, I think AR’s even better for certain things, but the future’s not “wear headsets all the time.”

Ayah Bdeir, entrepreneur and founder of LittleBits: I believe we’ve let technology, and technology creators, just build things unfettered. There’s been a lot of supposed progress that has not been thoughtful and not been responsible. I have a lot of concerns on the role tech plays in youths’ lives. And the cell phone in particular is one of the big culprits. I see it, I feel it, on days when I’m spending a lot of time on my phone. I’m agitated and jittery and I feel, like, my body is physically hunched over and my eyes are dry.

But my current lens on life also isn’t “let’s dump our technology in the ocean! Let’s go back to paper and pen!” In fact, I don’t think I even know how to write with a pen anymore. So I obviously have a very, very big love-hate relationship with the phone.

I think the future of the phone is that the experience becomes distributed. In a way this is already happening, like in the way your Apple Watch talks to you. And I think the attempts to build smart glasses will make a comeback. I think, in the future, we’ll stop carrying the phone. And we won’t actually talk on the phone anymore. We’ll communicate a lot in voice notes and will rely on devices where it’s easier to communicate in voice notes. The peripherals of the smartphone become more important.

But to go back to my original point: We need to convince people to invest more in responsible tech. Right now there is this black hole that is AI sucking in everyone with any smarts, skills, talent, degrees. There has to be enough of a reason for people to keep developing in other spaces, too, and enough of a desire to build thoughtful physical experiences at the same time. And I think how we value that is going to be a societal decision.

Erika Hall, author and cofounder of Mule Design: Predicting the future requires taking a hard look at the present and past, looking at the system of behaviors and incentives in context, and considering what might change or not. I live in an 1884 house, which helps moderate my expectations. Life is the same but with electricity and screens.

I think the smartphone is like the car, which was wildly successful at fitting into an existing space and enabled so much power and convenience. We reconfigured all society around it, even given the downsides.

We’ve all seen those composite images of the many physical products subsumed into the smartphone. It’s just going to be more of that, continuing to replace everything in the wallet. Whatever technology emerges around it, the smartphone will remain the thing we carry, because we all love carrying them. At this point it’s hard to function in society without one, and that’s not going to change. Some people will get the newest high-end model, and others will use a cheap, basic phone until it falls apart. Regional regulations will probably force a few changes, and affluent users will be able to pay for more privacy

Has the car gotten more human-centered or ethical in 100 years? It’s become incrementally less dangerous to the occupants. That’s about it. Also! The “phone” app is going to be vestigial at some point, and there will definitely be functionality at the OS or app level to help identify AI-generated content, a la spam filters.

Anshel Sag, analyst at Moor Insights & Strategy: I think in 10 years the smartphone will look very much like it does today. In the sense that the way we use it is still going to be very central to our daily lives. And the reason that I say that is because the form factor will really evolve. We’ve obviously landed on the candy bar design, and that will stick around for quite some time, but I do believe that the vast majority of the market will become foldable. So as the smartphone market shifts, people are going to be looking to get more utility out of that one device.

I also think we’re still more than 10 years away from replacing the smartphone with AR glasses or VR or ambient computing. So because of that, the smartphone will become the hub that connects all those devices to the internet. To keep wearables light, there will be just enough compute power, just enough connectivity in those devices, but the smartphone will really do the local AI processing. I think that’s why Apple [reportedly] pivoted away from doing a stand-alone headset right now and leaned a little bit more toward a tethered device

Do I think sales are going to reach the levels that they were in recent years? I don’t think so. The industry will continue to flow on expected capacity, but I don’t see a huge increase in growth unless at some point there’s a massive decline on a global scale. The important thing to consider is that there are opportunities in markets that are still underserved. Africa is one, where many of the phones in use are still feature phones, not full-fledged smartphones. There’s also potential in India’s 5G expansion. But I think we’re at a point where the smartphone market won’t swing drastically; it will behave a lot like the PC market, where you have years of slow growth and then sometimes economic conditions shrink sales.

Kyle Wiens, cofounder and CEO of iFixit and a right-to-repair advocate: I’m certainly hopeful that the smartphone moves more toward repairability and upgradability. You probably remember Google’s Project Ara from back in the day, when there was going to be a more modular phone. They got the phone near-ready to launch, and then they killed it. So the modular phone had all this momentum, and then it stopped

I think phones will move more toward upgradable cameras, like the Fairphone has. There’s nothing extremely architecturally difficult about doing this; someone with scale would just have to decide to do it. The iPhone 14 has been totally re-architectured so that you can open both the front and the back of the phone, which doesn’t accomplish anything except to make it more repairable. And Nokia just launched a new phone at Mobile World Congress last month, and the claim is that it’s super repairable and will have repair parts and guides available on day one. So all of this is a step in the right direction.

You know, I’m actually sort of in the Luddite camp in that I use my phone as little as I possibly can. I’m using a Pixel 5A because of the headphone jack. But I keep almost no apps on my home screen. I just do very little on my phone: Audible and Twitter. And I hate to generalize me to everybody else, but I’d really rather just be out in the world than on my phone.

I also think the app stores will be broken up. I think [Apple’s] App Store monopoly will end, and part of that is the EU mandating that Apple allow alternate app stores. The US won’t, in my opinion, but that’s OK. The App Store will still have a lot of sway, but the walled garden will get broken down. And then the next thing that’s going to have to get broken up is the iMessage monopoly, particularly because of the way young kids message. I mean, sure, these are my hopes and dreams. But the alternative is the vision of what Apple wants, which is effectively what we have now