Mal Fletcher
The Future of Smartphones

“While you are destroying your mind watching the worthless, brain-rotting drivel on TV, we on the Internet are exchanging, freely and openly, the most uninhibited, intimate and, yes, shocking details about our "CONFIG.SYS" settings."

So said Dave Barry, the celebrated American satirist - who worked, it has to be said, on paper.

Much has changed with the internet since those early, creaky days. Back then, the public internet was powered by a few hamsters on wheels somewhere in what later became Silicon Valley.

Today, the internet, aka the Cloud, is an almost indispensable part of our lives - for better or worse.

Ofcom, the UK’s government-appointed media oversight group, published a report today on the changing media habits of this nation. It paints a fascinating portrait of the internet’s burgeoning power to change habits and lifestyles.

The study probably holds little comfort for telephone service provides and even less for TV executives.

Eleven years ago, 52 per cent of Brits said they felt quite attached to their TV. In 2018, that number has fallen to just 28 per cent. Almost half now favour their smartphone over all other devices.

Yet the way smartphones are used has gone through a rapid evolution. Apparently, outgoing mobile call volumes have dropped by 2.5 billion minutes in the last year. This is the first decrease since data collection started.

The report is very revealing on two fronts. Firstly, in terms of the way we communicate one-to-one. Apparently, we’ve fallen out of love with phone calls.

I think almost every adult in the developed world will remember their very first mobile phone, in the fond way that some of us remember man’s first footprint on the moon.

My first mobile phone was, I’m hesitant to admit, one of those bricks with an antenna that you see in history programmes now. It was bulky and ugly, but its great selling point was that you could make telephone calls from almost anywhere.

You could talk to a friend at any time, wherever you were, just by pressing a button - provided, of course, you weren’t outside the very limited service footprint (it was more like a toe print).

Today, though, we use our phones for between two and three hours a day - depending on our age - but we’re making far fewer actual phone calls. Instead, we’re using media, messaging and other apps.

We prefer to message a friend or colleague rather than phone them. Why has the phone part of the smartphone fallen out of favour?

Partly it’s down to the rise in the number of people screening their incoming calls, using number ID apps and, of course, voicemail. If you call someone, there’s a good chance you’ll end up speaking to a voice mailbox, which is akin to speaking to a robot.

After you struggle to express yourself in a cogent way within the allotted time limit, you know there’s no guarantee that your message will ever be heard, much less replied to.

So, why bother putting yourself through all that misery and risking rejection, when you can send a quick text message via Whatsapp?

From the recipient’s side of the equation, a voice mail message normally leaves only one option for responding - a return call. The chances are you’ll then wind up with the farcical situation in which one person is chasing another, who is chasing them.

What’s more, phone calls, whilst they can be intimate, are quite clumsy. You can’t see your interlocutor, so you’re robbed of the powerful visual cues we rely upon in normal conversation. Reading another person’s biometric signals is an irreplaceable window into their emotions.

On the phone, you don’t get much time to think through your responses, either. You certainly don’t have an opportunity to edit something once it’s been said. With texts and messaging, though you lack the vocal input, you at least have a few editing and pacing options.

Of course, texting requires that you completely tune out your physical environment, which can be dangerous. Psychologists have, in characteristically colourful form, taken to calling this Absent Presence. It’s clinical speak for “the elevator’s working, but it doesn’t go all the way to the top floor”.

Absent presence was the prime motivator behind the decision of at least one US civic authority to pass a law prohibiting people from walking the streets while reading from their phones.

The other point of interest in the Ofcom study is just how quickly Brits have fallen out of love with television. Even the mighty BBC recently admitted that it urgently needs to address a problem with falling audience share, as increasing numbers of people up sticks for Netflix, Amazon Prime and other online broadcasters.

People are shifting their allegiances in part because the Beeb, for all its reputation for quality drama and entertainment, finds it hard as a public broadcaster to compete with the deep pockets of online corporate platforms.

And Netflix began pouring money into its product at just the right time, as Apple, Samsung and others were truly putting the “smart” into smartphone.

Time will tell how long our love affair with the mobile phone will continue. The only reason new techs like Augmented Reality a la Google Glass haven’t taken off is that we’re still too bewitched by our phones.

We’re still marvelling at how many different functions we can carry out using what looks like little more than a piece of glass. Inevitably, the time will come when the cache of phones will diminish - the cool factor will eventually shift to something else. Just as it has for TV and radio before that.

The history of human communication media has always been about fluidity. It seems always to follow a three-phase cycle.

The first stage is characterised by reaction. The olde school propogator of information and entertainments is shocked by some upstart new arrival. Executives start asking, “Who is this young punk who wants to steal away our audience, our market?”

The follows adaptation. The older medium tries to borrow ideas from the new. Smartphones have changed how we engage with the internet, via apps.

The internet changed how TV was made, via scrolling-text-on-screen and live audience response. Television transformed the way movies were shot. Movies shook up the world of radio, and so it goes.

For all the angst this process brings to people working in the established media, the final phase brings at least some resolution. It is marked by accommodation.

There comes a point where the new and old media learn how to work together, doing slightly different things, within the same space.

Two years ago, people were predicting the demise of paper books. Today, the production of new e-book readers has stalled.

Doubtless, there will be times of new growth for the electronic book industry - for example, when publishers start gamifying books, turning into truly interactive experiences. But present market conditions suggest that the paper book is relatively safe for the near future.

The same is probably true for television and, yes, even phone calls. But they will inevitably change in ways even the most prescient among us can't foresee.

Ten years from now, people will laugh at us and our chatter about CONFIG.SYS files. 

Watch 2030 w/ Mal Fletcher, Discipline the Digital!

Mal Fletcher (@MalFletcher) is the founder and chairman of 2030Plus. He is a respected keynote speaker, social commentator and social futurist, author and broadcaster based in London.

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