In January 2010, the late-Steve Jobs took to the stage and posed a question that would haunt designers, manufacturers, and developers for the rest of the decade. Is there room for more? We have the smartphone. We have the laptop. But what’s the next big thing?
Jobs was, of course, talking about the iPad. But what followed was a decade full of possible contenders for the title of “next big thing.” Tablets. Virtual reality headsets. Smartwatches. Smart glasses.
And yet, as we enter 2020, none of these things achieved the status of “next big thing.” We rely on smartphones and laptops more today than ever before. So, what happened?
All big pieces of tech innovation start as toys. So goes the premise introduced in Clay Christensen’s “disruption theory” in the 1990s: The first wave of nerdy early adopters spends exorbitant amounts of money on technology that is more fun than useful. The tech industry thrives on the flood of these toys pouring into conventions like CES to see what sticks.
If they’re successful, the technology expands, prices come down, and over time, toys are transformed into the tools we all rely on every day. It happened before. Why couldn’t it happen again?
Over the years, innovation and investment slowed down, and a hunger built to find the next smartphone. The next big thing.
Well, it does. But being crowned the “next big thing” in the 2010s meant something specific. The proliferation of the iPhone wasn’t like the mass adoption of portable CD players or digital point-and-shoot camera. Thanks to the App Store, an entire economy formed around the apps to support it. Businesses formed with services that were seemingly unimaginable in the past. Uber. Google Maps. Instagram. Yelp.
In those early days of the App Store, invention and ingenuity were around every corner. “There’s an app for that” became a household saying. The world was limitless with potential.
But that feeling couldn’t last forever. Over the years, innovation and investment slowed down, and a hunger built to find the next big thing on the level of the smartphone.
The first half of the decade was an exciting time. Smartphones had proliferated, thousands of developers were making a killing on apps, and there was a buzz in the air about what could be next.
The iPad was first, introduced to the world in January of 2010. A flood of Android and Windows tablets of all shapes and sizes followed after.
Two years later, Pebble raised $4.7 million on Kickstarter, pushing the first real smartwatch into existence. Google followed that up in 2014 with the announcement of an entire line of smartwatches, along with a software platform called Android Wear. Once the Apple Watch finally landed in 2015, we all assumed we’d smartwatches would be ubiquitous by the end of the decade.
It’s a similar story with VR. In 2012, the Oculus Rift raised $2.5 million on Kickstarter, followed by a landmark coming-out showcase at CES 2013. The world had seen virtual reality, and the immersion was unlike anything we’d seen before. Since then, VR headsets have gotten cheaper, gone wireless, and become more significantly more powerful.
Perhaps the most definitive example happened in 2013. Google Glass. Ah yes, the project that was supposed to take what we learned from the smartphone and move us to the next level. Smart AR glasses, more than anything, felt like the devices that could someday replace the smartphone. They were a little dorky, but it felt like the inevitable future.
By 2020, you would have expected one of these exciting new platforms to truly take off. What happened to all these contenders? Well, some of them are still alive and kicking. The Apple Watch and the iPad are both around, but they’ve had to pivot rather dramatically from their original purpose. The Apple Watch has primarily become a health and fitness device, while the iPad is primarily sold as a laptop replacement or 2-in-1. The competitors to these products have all but failed.
Meanwhile, VR remains a niche category for enthusiasts. Despite having been in the public eye and funded with dumpster loads of cash from the largest companies, none of these possible “next big things” have risen beyond the status of “toy.” They have their fans, but they’ve not reached the masses as their enthusiasts had hoped.
The burnout of Google Glass, in particular, became a dire warning. A hard lesson.
After convincing groups of tech journalists and futurists to try them out, the move began to integrate these smart glasses into the real world.
They were outright rejected. The label “Glasshole” was quickly coined to describe the early adopters. A “Stop the Cyborgs” group formed around the serious privacy concern brought by Google Glass. The future of consumer technology had just been made the laughing stock of the media, and the project quickly returned to the drawing board.
There’s a simple lesson to pull from the demise of Glass about the nature of technological progress. In the real world, tech only moves as fast as we let it. Technologists can’t expect the world to embrace something just because we can build it. Especially not if it’s something we’re expected to wear on our faces and interact with all day.
We’re still learning about the effect of smartphone usage on physical health, privacy, brain development, and culture at large.
More than that, maybe we’ve learned something about the pace of technology. Maybe wide adoption of a piece of tech as monumental as the smartphone or the laptop doesn’t just happen every few years. Maybe it’s more like every twenty years.
The real world has spent the last ten years catching up to the implications of these devices, not trying to replace them. We’re still learning about the effect of widespread smartphone usage on physical health, privacy, brain development, and culture at large.
Ten years from now, we might be in the right place to embrace the next major shift in technology. For all we know, it could be tied to the current iterations of VR, smartwatches, or smart glasses. But if the past ten years tell us anything, it’s that the “next big thing” will only show its face when we’re ready to receive it.
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