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Survival Of The Smartest

18 August 2014 by Jenn Granger

The Smartphone turned twenty this month, which means that it’s legally old enough to vote, remember the original DangerMouse, and drunk dial itself. If you don’t have a smartphone nowadays you’re considered practically prehistoric (even my technophobe stepdad has one, although he spent about three weeks shouting “OPEN!…WORK!” at it whenever he got a call), and it’s made us more connected than ever. Changing the way that we communicate and the way we shop, mobile internet is starting to outpace desktop, actually calling someone brings many out in a cold sweat, and going on holiday somewhere that doesn’t have 3G is – quite frankly – laughable. So, the real question is, what do the next twenty years have to offer?


August 16th 1994 probably doesn’t sound like a particularly memorable date, but it’s when the first ‘smartphone’ went on sale. Much like its chunky mobile predecessors, the first smartphone – IBM Simon – weighed in at a hefty 500g, and was a far cry from the jazzy-covered, pocket-friendly touchscreens we have today. Having said that, the tide’s turning back on itself: as we want more screen real estate to accommodate for the increasing amounts of work we do on our phones, our screen size is increasing – the iPhone screen is actually about the same size as the Simon’s.

Back in the ‘90s, the Simon boasted a calendar and note-taking abilities, along with sending emails and messages; it was also the first phone to sport software apps and hook up to a fax machine. It was quite expensive though at $899, and whilst we might complain about our batteries, it only lasted an hour (which works out about $15 per minute of use), so it wasn’t massively popular when it was released in the US, only selling about 50,000 units; to put this in perspective, around one billion smartphones were shipped worldwide last year.

The rise of the smartphone means that we’re connected all the time now, even experiencing drug full blown withdrawal symptoms when separated from our pocket pals. It’s predicted we’ll hit 1.75bn smartphone users this year, which means that if you’re not designing your site for mobile then you’re going to lose out, with many retailers even prioritising their mobile design. Apps are connecting us, entertaining us, and doing pretty much everything else too, and mcommerce is booming: 38% of purchases were from mobile and tablet during the first half of the year and that’s only going to increase as Facebook and other social media platforms integrate online shopping into their service – and talking of the connection king, nearly 77% of Facebook users are now mobile.

There’s so much scope for the smartphone of the future too, as we’re increasingly demanding to be connected anytime, anywhere, but the path is littered with questions. We still can’t beat the battery life of your little old brick, but will solar powered chargers become solar powered phones (maybe not in Britain though), meaning we’re never caught short? How will the phones fit into the Internet of Things? As wearables become more common how will they compete with or integrate into that? And will anyone ever be able to provide decent, total connection to the internet?

Our phones will likely become a Swiss army knife for millenials – doing everything from ordering our milk (connected to a fridge that will let you know when you’ve run out) to acting as a master key for our cars, houses and security systems. There may well be more voice/fingerprint activated tech and the ‘ware (both hard and soft) becomes even more mind-blowing, but we’ll also need better protection as they store and broadcast even more of our lives.

And finally, is it healthy to be so reliant on a piece of tech? I dropped my phone down a toilet once and it was a very bad day… imagine a bit of a bump turning your weekly order of two pints of milk into 2000, or putting your car in drive before you’re in it. To coin a phrase from Spiderman (or more accurately, Voltaire): “With great power comes great responsibility”. Well, the smartphone is definitely powerful, but the real question is, are we able to wield it safely?

You can see the smartphone that started it all in the Information Age gallery at the British Science Museum.

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