Dissecting the Smartphone in 2018

So, let’s talk about smartphones. It’s that time of year again when the shiny new products from all major players in the smartphone market have landed in the market, and people are ready to vote their favorites with their hard-earned cash. Phones generate more excitement and passionate discussion than any other tech product.

Take a look at the comments sections of tech blogs and YouTube channels, at “Tech Twitter” as it has come to be known – you will see millions of people throwing in their two cents about the newest shiny rectangular objects of desire.

These objects have become so central to our world that we can’t help being fascinated – obsessed, even – by them.

Our feverish obsession shows no sign of dampening because these devices are important beyond their utility in our present-day lives – they are windows into our future.

Before we launch into our introspective look at the smartphone landscape as it stands, let’s take a moment to light a solemn candle to a fallen castle of dreams: Windows Phone is dead. Long live Windows Phone.

Yes, the platform lost that iconic name a couple of years ago when Microsoft rebranded it as Windows 10 Mobile, but we remember our fallen friends as they were at the prime of their life, not on their deathbeds. And for a brief moment of time, Windows Phone had indeed seemed full of promise and vigor – a contender that offered a different vision of mobile computing to those who dared embrace it. But it was not to be.

Developers never embraced the platform, and for all the radical and interesting ideas it had, Microsoft’s acquisition of Nokia, the parlor trick of Continuum that allowed your phone to double as your PC – none of it could save Windows Phone. We do love our underdogs, but this dog never got to have its day.

Image : 9to5mac

So it appears that in late 2017, the world belongs to Android and iOS, by now two mature software platforms that have undergone refinement and improvement for a full decade. If you have been watching the evolution of these massive software projects, you know that they have been playing catch up to each other, trying to one-up each other, trying to outdo each other every cycle.

Android and iOS have diverged, converged, and diverged again so many times it becomes tiresome to keep track. However, it is starting to feel like we are approaching a radical inflection point. The idea of a smartphone started out as a combination and miniaturization of existing concepts; as Steve Jobs put it in his brilliant unveiling of the original iPhone, “a widescreen iPod with touch controls; a revolutionary mobile phone; and a breakthrough Internet communications device.” That was the original definition of a modern smartphone, long lost champions of Blackberry and Nokia’s N Series notwithstanding. Ten years on, no one on earth needs such metaphors to understand what a smartphone is. It’s far more likely that we resort to smartphone based analogies to refer to technology from a bygone era: we point to iPods and PDAs and say these were the things that were precursors to the perfect form, mere stepping stones on the way to handheld perfection.

Our feverish obsession shows no sign of dampening because these devices are important beyond their utility in our present-day lives – they are windows into our future.

That a phone could be a software platform on itself was not in Jobs’s vision. He was reluctant to accept and condone the idea of opening up his walled garden to developers. But in the end, he gave in and unleashed the App Store.

Some still whisper that mobile apps were never supposed to exist; that the entire boom of apps was borne out of the deficiencies of the mobile web. While that may indeed be true, apps have changed the world in the last decade.

We are, however, approaching a new era where even apps start to fade away. The vision of the disappearing computer has haunted designers and engineers for as far back as there were personal computers. That vision is nearing reality, and you need look no further than the palm of your hand for proof.

Siri, iOS 7, June, 2013

The major players have made it very clear where mobile software is headed: machine learning and augmented reality. Your smartphone is getting much, much smarter this year. Apple’s Siri has been around for a while, but we can all agree that so far, Siri has been frustratingly limited in its capabilities.

With last year’s debut of Google Assistant, we finally have a promising vision of intelligent assistance. Assistant is slowly cannibalizing the functions of quite a few apps and services: it shows you the weather, the news, your favorite sports scores, your travel itinerary, even what song is playing in the background. You can have a threaded conversation with it, harnessing the full power of Google’s Knowledge Graph. It can open apps, toggle phone settings.

And this is only the beginning. Samsung’s ill-received attempt at developing a personal assistant, Bixby, shows that this is a game where everyone is trying to compete. This year, Amazon’s Alexa is launching on some new phones from major manufacturers; as is Microsoft’s Cortana.

Cortana – what started as a character in a video-game has spawned a personal assistant to rival the likes of Apple’s Siri and Amazon’s Alexa. You’d almost be forgiven for wanting a Netflix sit-com TV show with these three as dysfunctional room-mates.

Personal assistants are comfortable metaphors for artificial intelligence because they often mimic human behavior. But the biggest gains in machine learning research in the last few years has been in image processing, and those gains are starting to transform into products.

Google Photos has been able to recognize things, places, and people in your photo library for a while now. The iOS Photos app has the same capability. While categorizing and searching your own photos is nice and convenient, the next step for computer vision is object recognition in the wild. And that product has a name: Google Lens. This is a product that has long been in development, and if you stop and think about it, it is central to Google’s future.

Image: Google

As of now, if you own a Google Pixel, inside the Google Photos app you will find an option to let the app recognize salient objects in your photos. Google is starting small and cautiously: for now, the focus is on recognizing books, movies, albums, and artwork. But surely you can see how one day this feature will live in your camera app itself, not your library; and it will recognize much, much more than these few categories.

While categorizing and searching your own photos is nice and convenient, the next step for computer vision is object recognition in the wild.

In our camera obsessed world, visual search is the perfect blend of magic and convenience that users crave: point your phone at a thing and ask what it is, it doesn’t get simpler than that. And once you have live object recognition, it’s only a small step towards useful, actionable information layered on top of reality. Augmented reality is goofy fun when it puts dancing hot dogs on conference tables, but when it helps you remember people’s names at meetings, even before you ask it to, that’s when you know you really are living in the future.

Image: TechRadar

There’s a lot more that we haven’t talked about: connected homes, smart speakers, live speech translation – the stuff of science fiction is starting to creep into reality. But one thing is for certain: your smartphones is what lives right in the middle of it all.

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