Which Is the Most Important Device You Use to Connect to the Internet?
I’d been meaning to write a short piece listing the mobile devices in my arsenal and how I use them. Then about two weeks ago, John Gruber wrote a piece linking to an interesting statistic that broke down usage numbers on several computing devices. The interesting revelation in the link is the dramatic increase in smartphone usage over traditional computing devices over a period of just two years. The staggering increase in smartphone usage got me thinking about all the industries and companies that have been decimated, as well as the wasteland of "extinct” devices that have been left in its wake. So what are these devices and how did this happen? Lets start in June, 2007.
And with those words, the fate of companies like Nokia, RIM (Blackberry), Palm and many others in various related and unrelated industries was sealed. Steve Jobs was a master showman with no equal. His unmatched showmanship aside, the iPhone was truly a revolutionary device. Sure, it was not the first smartphone. There had been several generations of Palm Treo phones, Nokia E Series and Communicators and numerous Motorola, HTC, Samsung, etc. Windows Mobile devices.
What made the iPhone revolutionary was its ground-breaking user-interface that did away with a physical keyboard and replaced it with a capacitive screen, a full html web experience, easy music and video playback, motion sensors that enabled the phone to rotate sideways whenever the phone was turned from portrait to landscape, and later, the App Store, which transformed how people get software, thus ushering in a new gold rush for app developers, small and large. We take these features for granted today, and expect every smartphone to come with these features, but before the iPhone, “smartphones", had physical keyboards, had tiny resistive screens and were accompanied by plastic styli. Oh, and there was no real “app store”.
Here is how disruptive the iPhone has been: two years prior to the iPhone launch, Google acquired a small startup called Android Inc. for $50 million. Of note are two things - the co-founder of Android (Andy Rubin) and what the first Android devices looked like. Prior to starting Android Inc, Andy Rubin, an ex-Apple employee, founded a company called Danger Inc,. Danger Inc, is the company that made the [T-Mobile] Sidekick. The Sidekick was a smartphone before the smartphone became popular. It had a 3.5 inch screen that rotated 180 degrees to reveal a qwerty keyboard. The Sidekick was extremely popular for its AIM messaging and web browsing functionality. It was also famous for being the mobile device of choice for celebrities like Paris Hilton. Danger would later sell to Microsoft for $500 million. Then after a strange and unsuccessful phone launch, Microsoft decided to shut down Danger and its messaging service. The ill-fated phone Microsoft launched after the acquisition was called the Kin Phone. The kin was killed after only six weeks on the market.
But before Apple revealed the first iPhone, Google's plans for Android back in 2006 involved physical keys for control and no touchscreen input support. In documents revealed during the Apple-Samsung legal battle, early specification stated that "the product [Android] was designed with the presence of discrete physical buttons as an assumption. However, there is nothing fundamental in the product's architecture that prevents the support of touchscreen in the future." (The above render is from Google's initial SDK.) Somehow, between the announcement of the iPhone and the finalization of Android's software requirements, touchscreen input was not only supported, but multi-input touch was now required. People have speculated that Eric Schmidt, then CEO of Google and former Apple board member, caused this change in Android after catching an early glimpse of what the iPhone was going to look like. This is one of the reasons why Steve Jobs vowed to wage a “thermal-nuclear war against Android. His words were; Android was “stolen product”.
In the following years, many of Apple’s competitors released lackluster, me-too products with little to no commercial success. It took many years of hard-work for Google to offer a credible alternative in the form of Android. Love it or hate it, Android today is a credible alternative to iOS. It powers over 85% of all smartphones in the world today. Companies like Palm, Nokia, RIM and Microsoft thought that the iPhone was destined to fail. Steve Ballmer famously pointed out, rather giddily, that the iPhone “doesn’t have a keyboard, making it not a very good email device”. Was it a clear lack of vision, or was he blind-sided and didn’t know what to say, so he had to downplay the anticipated impact? Well whatever the case was, today Palm is dead and so is Nokia. Microsoft all but acknowledged defeat in the smartphone space and Blackberry is on its death-bed. Today, Android powers smartphones, tablets, smartwatches, TVs and a host of other devices from new powerhouse companies like Xiaomi, as well as old-guards like Samsung, LG, Motorola etc. and Apple has a 92% monopoly of all the profit in the mobile phone industry.
So what are the devices that have been killed off or marginalized by the smartphone? In October of 2009, Google introduced free turn-by-turn GPS Navigation with Android 2.0. TomTom and Garmin, manufacturers of stand-alone GPS devices saw precipitous drops of their stock prices. Engadget captured the drop with a caption simply titled: “The game has changed”. This is because prior to the release of Google Maps Navigation, companies like Garmin and TomTom offered the only options for aftermarket in-car GPS devices. You bought a dash/windshield mounted unit from Garmin and TomTom, or you paid thousands of dollars for a built-in GPS Navigation unit if you were fortunate enough to own a car that had that option. I remember paying over $1200 for a portable GPS unit from Garmin. I bought a GPS unit because on one a summer afternoon in 2004 while working in upstate New York, my printed Map Quest directions flew out my car window. I had no AC in my Geo Prism so my windows were rolled down. Here I was, hundreds of miles away from home, no idea how I got where I was, no idea where my destination was and no idea how to get back home. After driving around in circles for what felt like an eternity, i found an old gas station that could just as easily been from The Walking Dead. I asked for directions to “the city”, thinking that I was still in New York. It turns out that I had driven into Pennsylvania. The wrinkly old man gave me directions to I-95. As soon as I got home, I went on the internet and bought a Garmin StreetPilot 2620 It cost me $1200. It was the most expensive device I had ever bought and I could barely afford it. Heck, it cost more than my car, which I bought for $1000. But I was extremely happy - happy that I was never going to get lost ever again.
The GPS was not the only device to get cannibalized by the smartphone. The MP3 was one of them. After the success of the Walkman and the Discman, Sony’s portable music players lost momentum to the iPod. Even though Sony had a digital music player before the iPod, they refused to support the MP3 format, rather going with their own proprietary ATRAC format. The lack of MP3 support, the initial lack of a store-front that allowed users to legally acquire songs, the absence of an easy-to-use desktop application and draconian DRM scheme ultimately killed Sony’s dream of continued domination of the portable music player market. But ultimately, the iPod was also “killed off" - by the iPhone (and smartphones in general). I say “killed off” because, until quite recently, the name for the iPhone’s media was iPod. So while sales continue to decline for the iPod line because of iPhone usage, Apple continues to make iPod devices, only ceasing production of the Classic iPod a few months ago.
But the biggest product or category to experience the biggest drop is cameras and photography in general. Years ago, cameras used film. Pictures were taken usually by a professional photographer, and then the film (negatives) were taken to a photo printing shop where the film was ran printed - a process which included a dark room. There was no way to see how good (or bad) your shots were. If you wanted to see your pictures, you had to wait several hours or days even, to see the finished product on photo paper. There was no editing of your pictures on your computer and certainly couldn’t email the pictures to anyone. If you wanted reprints or additional copies of your pictures, you went back to the printer - assuming you had the negatives. Otherwise, you paid the photographer again to do that for you. All of that changed with digital photography. Digital photography allowed everyone, regardless of skill set or budget to buy a camera, take pictures and either print in a Walmart or drug-store, or store on your computer for sharing via email. Then the smartphone arrived.
Looking back, it is hard to believe that the first iPhone shipped with a 2 Megapixel camera and that, it did not shoot video. It took till the 3GS before the iPhone could shoot video, and after cellular network speeds became fast enough to support the sharing of pictures, photography went through another revolution. Social Media services like Instagram and Facebook enabled smartphone users to take pictures on their phones and instantly share it with friends and family across town and across the world. No longer were these pictures trapped in the digital prison otherwise known as the computer, occasionally shared via email or shown in a slideshow, and then promptly returned behind bars to their prison cells. And as technology advanced and sensor technology improved, many people could afford to leave their point-and-shoot cameras behind, confident that the camera in their pocket was good enough to capture the memories. Many professional photographers and amateur enthusiasts dismissed mobile photography. Take a look at the billboard from Panasonic, advertising Lumix point-and-shoot camera. What camera manufacturers didn’t get was that, the smartphone as a camera, was - and still is infinitely more convenient. There is a saying in photography that goes like this: "The best camera is the one you have with you”. Not only that, internet connectivity meant that you could share instantly, your pictures and videos.
The list of devices that have been rendered obsolete is endless. From e-book readers to remote controls, we can all list at least 5 devices we replaced the smartphone with. And thanks to vibrant and creative developers and entrepreneurs, new business exist now on smartphones, that couldn’t exist a few years ago. Uber is one of these companies that comes to mind. So this gets me to the crux of this piece: smartphones are getting bigger by the day, their cameras are getting better by the minute, and are now good enough to replace an actual camera for the majority of people, and faster processors are enabling app developers to push develop games and other apps that push the boundaries of what was once possible in the mobile category. I use a 15 inch Macbook Pro with Retina display as my “main” machine. I also have an iPad Air 2 that I carry everywhere with me. And I have a Sony A7 mirrorless camera. I have a workflow that requires all these devices. I do all my intensive work like photo and video editing on the Macbook Pro. I do all the light-browsing, casual gaming, email and watch on the iPad and I take all “special occasion” pictures on the A7. So what do I use my iPhone 6 Plus for then?
I make calls with it. I text and email with it. I play games on it. I listen to music on it. I watch videos on it. I take pictures with it, I browse the web on it, I manage my work schedule on it and occasionally, I edit a photo or video on it. It may seem that I can do every task that I currently require 3 different devices to do. So the question is, if I had to eliminate some, or all of my devices, save for my iPhone, would I be okay and would my workflow and productivity take a hit? For me, the answer is no. Here’s why.
I need a laptop, plain and simple. My day job requires me to use one. I need a physical keyboard and mouse for data entry, and the iPhone 6 Plus, as big as it is, is still too small for me to use for work. So what about the iPad? When the iPad was first introduced, I conducted an experiment. I ditched my laptop and tried using just the iPad. the promise of all-day battery, persistent internet connectivity (I have always bought the cellular version), flash storage and a thin and light package sounded like the perfect machine for a road-warrior. I found out that typing on glass over an extended period of time was a pain. The lack of a filesystem meant that I could not create and edit presentations and and other work documents. Also, the lack of a mouse meant that I couldn’t accurately and quickly manipulate any task that required entering data into cells. And while the iPad “multi-tasks”, it displays one app at a time, meaning that I was constantly jumping in and out of applications by pressing the “Home” button to go launch a different app to retrieve data just to finish a single document. Now over the years, many of these issues have been fixed, and with the upcoming iOS 9 update, the iPad will gain true multi-tasking.
With iOS 9, the iPad will be able to run two apps side-by-side, allowing users to truly multi-task. And while there is still no user-accessible file system like “Finder” on OS X or “Explorer” on Windows, iPad users will have a new app called “iCloud Drive”. The app is optional and it needs to be switched on in settings, but once enabled, users will be able to access all their documents and photos stored in iCloud. Obviously you have to use iCloud to store your files, but assuming you are, you will now be able to access your files via a central location. Another filesystem improvement is the ability to access files stored in other cloud storage services like Dropbox, Google drive, etc.
I use my iPhone’s camera more than I use my full-frame camera. My phone is always with me and it is very convenient to take and upload pictures. The images are decent enough and camera, fast enough that nine times out of ten, I get the shot I want. And over its entire life, the iPhone has gained the reputation as one of the best cameras (phone and actual camera) on the market. But when I go to my 8-year old son’s school for an even or go on vacation, the Sony A7 is the camera I bring along. It is objectively better than any smartphone camera. it is capable of capturing infinitely more detail than a smartphone camera and is far more capable than my iPhone'e camera. yet I use my iPhone's camera far more than I use the A7. Why? Optical Zoom.
The iPhone’s camera, while capable, lacks optical zoom. There are many other reasons to prefer a proper camera over a smartphone camera, but I would be willing to trade in my bulky (comparatively) full-frame mirrorless camera for the iPhone’s if it had optical zoom. I have not heard any rumors about the next iPhone gaining optical zoom, but there are rumors of increased megapixel count on the next iPhone (6S). See, over the last four generations as the megapixel wars have intensified, Apple has kept the iPhone’s camera to 8 megapixel shooter. They have made improvements to the various iPhone sensors but the resolution has not been improved. And aside from the marketing buzz of having the highest megapixel count on a phone, like the 41.3 megapixel Nokia Lumia 1020, what are the other benefits of a higher megapixel camera? Besides being able to make larger prints of your photos, you can use it as reverse zoom - by first taking the picture, then zooming in and cropping the image for a closer, more dramatic, not to mention clearer and larger subject.
It is inevitable that the iPhone camera and smartphone cameras in general will continue to get better, one day eclipsing the digital camera in every meaningful and measurable way. And when that time comes, standalone cameras will go the way of the paper map, used only by a very small segment of the population for specialized tasks. What is not clear yet is the future form-factor of the smartphone. Will it morph into a device that you carry in your pocket when you’re out of the home or workplace, but transform into a laptop/ desktop computing device once you plug it into a monitor and a keyboard? For many people, the smartphone is their primary computing device. Will Apple kill off the Mac and OS X, and then replace that with some hybrid iOS-based device? The most recent versions of OS X have gained a lot of iOS features as well as iOS look and feel. Is that an indication of things to come? We all witnessed Microsoft try (and fail) to merge its desktop and mobile operating systems with Windows 8. Will that serve as a cautionary tale to Apple or is it a simple case of poor ideas and implementation on Microsoft’s part?
As it exists today, my needs are disparate and specific enough that I have to use all these devices. In the future that may change, but today, I need all these devices. But my most important device that I use to connect to the internet is my Macbook Pro. I guess if I had to absolutely cut one device off, it would have to be the iPad. This is because the iPhone 6 Plus is big enough that it can supplement for the iPad in many instances. But I would not be so quick to dismiss the iPad. Once iOS 9 launches, I am confident that it will gain new abilities and maybe, even become the only computing device for many people, especially the older, less technical crowd. What about you? Which is the most important device you use to connect to the internet?