The smartphone’s scattershot future looks a lot like the PC’s past

Smartphone-Future-0001 how to reduce your data usage
The sun is setting on the era of the smartphone.

Worldwide growth has slowed to the single digits, and some projections suggest that the field may level, or even decline, by the end of this decade. The decline corresponds to a wave of consumer disinterest in new, cutting-edge handsets. Gadget geeks who once demanded the fastest phablet are now raving about the humble, more affordable iPhone SE.

Changes like this are new to smartphones, but we’ve seen them before. The same story played out about a decade ago in the PC world. The decline of the PC from prominence says a lot about the pain, and innovation, smartphones will soon see.

The iPhone’s dominance will fade

In the early to mid-80s, as computers started to transition from mainframes to obtainable home appliances, countless challengers appeared; Apple, Atari, Commodore, and Tandy, to name a few. All of these were popular at some point in the 80s, and all of them eventually fell in the face of the PC platform.

You might not like Android. But you’d better get used to it, because you’ll be using it a decade from now.

That happened because the PC, now generally understood to be a computer running Windows, is not monolithic. It’s various, flexible, capable of meeting a wide range of needs and performing many different functions. Companies that tried to keep everything in-house were outmaneuvered. It happened to Apple once; it will happen again.

Yes, it’s hard to imagine the iPhone falling from grace. Apple’s most financial report showed a downturn year-over-year, the company still sold almost 75 million smartphones. That’s more than all of the PCs sold across the globe in the first quarter of 2016.

But no company is an island. Apple’s rapidly growing line of smartphones and tablets is evidence of its struggle to be all things, to all people. In truth, it can’t be. It won’t be. As I argued in a debate over the iPhone SE, Apple is already slipping up. Its problems will multiply over time as it’s forced to choose between spreading itself thinner and thinner, or sacrificing customers to other companies building the devices Apple can’t.

Android and iOS will remain leaders, but Android is winning

That doesn’t mean the iPhone will tumble overnight. iOS devices will be important throughout at least the remainder of this decade. A platform as strong as iOS does not vanish overnight.

But Android is even more deeply entrenched. While it fights neck-and-neck with Apple in North America, it’s already taken over globally, with most studies finding it has around 80 percent of the market. That’s not quite on par with Window’s stranglehold on the PC, but it’s close, and it’s growing.

You might complain that Android will fall because it’s not very good. Many users are on outdated versions of it, security issues run rampant, and manufacturers still insist on re-skinning it with often hideous results. Using Android just isn’t as enjoyable as using iOS, even if the hardware is taken out of the equation.

Those are valid complaints, but they’re not going to stop Android’s dominance. Microsoft came to control the PC because it built an operating system that works for a huge range of devices, opening the floodgates for hardware and software – not because everyone loved Windows as a product. Android does the same. It will win because it gives Google’s partners the tools they need to build devices and software for just about anyone interested in a smartphone.

You might not like Android. But you’d better get used to it, because you’ll be using it a decade from now, no matter what phone you own right now.

The hardware will rapidly diverge

Smartphones have evolved quickly since their introduction, but have also followed a strangely uniform path. At first, they were small, built to easily fit in one hand. As their capabilities grew, so did screens, culminating in 2014 and 2015’s phablet craze. Now, with Apple’s iPhone’s SE, many are wondering if all the major flagships will trend downward again.

I don’t think so. The iPhone’s growing line-up is, as I said earlier, the company’s attempt to satisfy a customer base that’s increasingly diverse. Smartphones aren’t cool gadgets, like they were in 2007. And they’re starting to move away from the sleek status symbols they were a few years ago. They’re maturing into mundanity, becoming a functional device, a necessity of modern living. Yet necessity doesn’t mean everyone’s needs are the same.

If you already think the smartphone world is confusing, well, you’d best buckle up. There’s going to be a dizzying array of devices, with displays from four to six inches, with processors from dual to octo-core, with batteries large and small, with fingerprint readers, facial recognition cameras, add-on peripherals, and more.

And these won’t be side-shows, as so many phones outside the dominant trend currently are. There will be widely distributed flagships in every niche. Some people will buy nothing but 4-inchers. Other will prefer super-thin fashion phones. Others will flock to devices that are thick even by today’s standards. All of these, and more, will be successful.

Heaven, or a headache

Such changes seem a turn for the worse. As smartphones shift, the options will multiply, and become more complex. It won’t be enough to ask “what’s the best Android phone?” You’ll have to be much, much more specific.

Or not. As the PC market has proven, more choice doesn’t have to become unmanageable. Most people who buy a PC simply pick an affordable option with a 15-inch display, and call it a day. Soon, all but the most devout geeks will purchase smartphones with the same philosophy.

To mobile junkies, it sounds like an apocalypse. Actually, change means advancement. It’s good for technology to lose its novelty. Maturity isn’t synonymous with excitement — but it is synonymous with reliability, security, and capability.

The views expressed here are solely those of the author and do not reflect the beliefs of Digital Trends.

Mobile

Rekindled yet again, Nokia’s next-gen phones offer more than just nostalgia

HMD Global, a startup that designs and builds Nokia Android smartphones, wants to put the Nokia brand name back “where it belongs.” It helps that it’s made up of ex-Nokia employees. We go behind the scenes to see how HMD formed.
Gaming

Xbox app lets you access your console while away from home. Here's how

Microsoft's Xbox allows you to access your profile information and launch media content directly from your mobile device. Check out our quick guide on how to connect your smartphone to an Xbox One.
Mobile

Android vs. iOS: Which smartphone platform is the best?

If you’re trying to choose a new phone and you’re not sure about the merits and pitfalls of the leading smartphone operating systems, then come on in for a detailed breakdown as we pit Android vs. iOS in various categories.
Mobile

We tried all the latest and greatest smartphones to find the best of 2019

Smartphones are perhaps the most important and personal piece of tech on the planet. That’s why it’s important to pick the best phone for your individual needs. Here are the best smartphones you can buy.
Computing

What is fixed wireless 5G? Here’s everything you need to know

Here's fixed wireless 5G explained! Learn what you need to know about this effective new wireless technology, when it's available, how much it costs, and more. If you're thinking about 5G, this guide can help!
Mobile

Razer’s Wireless Charger will turn your desk into gamer heaven

The Razer Wireless Charger adds colorful flair to your desk or bedside table. It works with any phone that supports Qi wireless charging -- with some quirks -- but is it worth the high price tag? We take a look.
Emerging Tech

Awesome Tech You Can’t Buy Yet: camera with A.I. director, robot arm assistant

Check out our roundup of the best new crowdfunding projects and product announcements that hit the web this week. You may not be able to buy this stuff yet, but it sure is fun to gawk!
Wearables

The best Apple Watch bands and straps to stylize your timepiece

If you have an Apple Watch, you know how easy it is to take off the strap it came with, so why not buy yourself another one? Here, we've gathered the best Apple Watch bands we've seen so far. There's something for everyone.
Mobile

How to choose an iPad in 2019: A practical guide to Apple’s tablets

Selecting an iPad from Apple's lineup can be intimidating, but it doesn't have to be. Our comprehensive guide should put the numbers and specs in practical, easy-to-understand terms. Find your ideal iPad with the help of our guide.
Mobile

Apple resurrects the iPhone SE with brand-new units starting at $249

Apple quietly started selling the iPhone SE again, at even lower prices than when it was discontinued four months ago. Brand new units of the 32GB version are on sale for $249, while the 128GB version is going for $299.
Android

Popular Android navigation apps are just Google Maps with ads, researcher says

A malware researcher found that 19 free Android navigation apps on the Google Play Store were nothing more than Google Maps, but with ads. One of the apps asked for a payment to remove the ads, while some of them presented security risks.
Mobile

Google Maps will now help drivers stay within speed limits, avoid speed traps

Google Maps will now start showing speed limits and speed camera locations, so that drivers will not be flagged for speeding tickets. The new features arrive to the app years after they were introduced in Waze.
Mobile

Text up a storm with the best messaging apps for iOS and Android

These days, most people tend to favor digital messages over phone calls. We have the best messaging apps that allow you to share photos and documents, send text messages, and more with end-to-end encryption.
Mobile

The Cat S48c is the phone designed for construction workers (or the clumsy)

The Cat S48c is a rugged smartphone that's available from Sprint. It mixes midrange specs with a huge battery wrapped in an extremely tough and protective body. If you need a phone that can survive the construction site, then this is it.