What comes after the smartphone? The tech world isn’t ready for the answer

MWC 2016: This might be the end of the 'It' gadget
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Here's a nice thought. You build a hit product - a phone, a console, a laptop - and watch it fly and fly, from iteration to iteration, just increasing the number at the end each time, with millions of quarterly sales and people in countries around the world all using identical gadgets because the same smartphone camera or the same app can enhance wildly different lifestyles.

It's a must have. All anyone is talking about that week. The designers get it. The advertisers get it. The sales staff get it. The shareholders get it. No matter who walks in the door, there can only be one of 'It'. Second place doesn't compute.

Read this: Our edit of the best wearable tech out of MWC 2016

But then you need to find the next big hit. And everyone at this week's Mobile World Congress (aka the phone conference) knows that smartphones are pretty boring now. They're all impressive in slightly different ways and reliable in slightly different ways. The spark has gone out of the selection. The iPhone won. Next.

The real answer to what will usurp the smartphone in terms of innovation, attention and sales is… (awkward drumroll please) everything else you own. Tech companies have been putting chips into everyday objects and making them "smart" for years.

What comes after the smartphone? The tech world isn’t ready for the answer

Experimental Samsung C-Lab spin offs include smart shoe makers IOFIT

Whether it's a watch, an earbud, a pair of shoes, a dashboard or a Bluetooth speaker, the difference now is that they are useful, they look good, they work together, they have AI not just Wi-Fi and they cost pretty much the same as their dumb equivalents.

The connected self is replacing the connected screen.

And because it's not the tablet and it's clearly not (just) the smartwatch, suddenly the biggest tech companies on the planet are taking gambles again. Aside from the Apple Watch and HomeKit, there are very few cues from Cupertino to follow when it comes to virtual reality, wearable tech and the smart home. We're at the seeing-what-sticks stage.

The next big thing is making what you already wear and own smart or connected or intelligent. Well, I lied - it's also, without a doubt, virtual reality.

VR is about more than the headset

If there's one single device which you don't already own and could disrupt how tech gives us information, entertains us and lets us communicate, it's the VR headset. That's exactly why Mark Zuckerberg turned up at the Samsung Galaxy S7 launch and barely mentioned the Samsung Galaxy S7, by default the biggest device of MWC.

Zuck is all about VR whether it's talking up the 200+ apps and games on the Gear VR, which runs Oculus software, the 25,000 360-degree videos already on Facebook, or the dynamic streaming that's coming to save battery and increase resolution.

There weren't actually many big VR announcements at MWC mainly because we're just waiting for the headsets to arrive in our living rooms already. What we did get was the price, final design and features of the HTC Vive, LG's attempt at comfortable, lightweight (G5 only) goggles as well as the 360-degree cameras from LG and Samsung and demos of exciting new eye tracking tech from Eye Tribe.

What comes after the smartphone? The tech world isn’t ready for the answer

Mark Zuckerberg strolls past MWC attendees wearing Gear VRs

We still didn't get a PlayStation VR release date, though. It's sure to be the biggest selling headset in 2016 but Sony's booth at MWC seemed much more concerned with its new Xperia Ear and Xperia Eye wearables, and smart home concepts. Sony is focusing the PlayStation VR as more of a gaming device for PS4 owners than either Oculus or HTC (with social and storytelling plans) but that might all change before it's launched.

The VR headset is one device but even this isn't "the next smartphone". It won't be the only way we experience games and movies. The coming of VR means more (or new) handheld controllers, gesture tracking cameras, 360 audio headphones, connected gloves and haptic smart clothing.

The headset is just one, albeit important, VR accessory of many and even that can't be a one gadget fits all set up - the HTC Vive will actually arrive in two models, one for the West and one for Asia to accommodate differences in head size and shape.

Panic! There's no No.1 must have wearable

It's much easier to decide on a must have, no.1 smartphone than a must have, no.1 wearable or smart home gadget, partly because some connected self devices just aren't that useful - but mostly because most are useful to some people, some of the time.

We've pointed out before that wearable tech doesn't need one, single "killer app." Instead each device needs either a killer app for Sophie Charara, or a killer app for your grandma, or a killer app for you. The same goes for form factor. The same goes for aesthetics.

Whether it was Acer and Victorinox's interesting smart watch accessory collaboration, Sony's Xperia Ear hearable or smart jewellery from ZTE, it was tricky to pick out wearable tech trends at MWC simply because, unlike last year's Android Wear heavy show, everyone this year tried something different. Visa and MasterCard weren't just shouting about a few high profile contactless payment watches but also jackets, keyfobs, fitness trackers and even smart rings.

What comes after the smartphone? The tech world isn’t ready for the answer

A kick about with Qualcomm's new smart leggings prototype at MWC

And, sure, we're excited to see what will run Qualcomm's new Snapdragon Wear 2100 processor but unlike phones and laptops which spawn new products every few months, we're not going to see that same cycle of new processors churning out new products with wearables.

Read this: Why Android Wear's no show was a good thing

Snapdragon chips might be powering all the smartwatches but with Wear 2100 powered smart leggings popping up, both Qualcomm and Intel know that variety is key - Curie is being showcased in couture dresses, Lady Gaga performances and sports gear. Though the risk for Intel is that the wearable tech which doesn't try to copy the smartphone might not need Curie - an NFC chip or accelerometer might do.

In new smart home gear, Sony's Xperia Agent built on the Amazon Echo idea and added family friendly projections and LG's Rolling Bot - part security camera, part friend to your pets - showed that not everything in our life has to be controlled by phones.

ZTE showed off a smart air conditioner, Oral-B had a toothbrush that uses your smartphone's camera to check up on your brushing and Panasonic's 4G security cam Nubo made an appearance. See, everything you own. Whether they know why they're doing it or not, no tech company is immune to the charm of the Internet of Things and its potential.

Answering the goddamn question

Our phones aren't actually going anywhere. The cynical view of mobile VR and accessories like 360 degree or wearable cameras is that they exist purely to sell more phones. And they might sell more phones. Win win.

Plus, there's the stats. OK, yes, Apple sold almost as many iPhones (74 million) in the last quarter of last year as the entire wearable tech industry (78 million) in the whole of 2015. But they are in the same conversation now, we are allowed to take it seriously now. And even though it was a record quarter for Apple, the iPhone's growth is slowing down - panicking investors - whereas wearable tech is increasing in popularity. The market grew 172% last year in fact.

And look at the numbers - an estimated 21 million Fitbits, 12 million Xiaomi Mi Bands and just under 12 milliom Apple Watches. But that still leaves Garmin and Samsung in the top five and 27 million "other" devices sold - the Android Wears, the Jawbones, the Misfits, the random kid trackers. It's far from just Fitbit and Apple's game.

With a variety of different devices, some of which - like smart jewellery - that'll make you feel weird calling 'devices', introducing one killer product, the industry will change. Hype will be diluted. A single piece of hardware won't make the impact it used to in the wider ecosystem. The new 'It' gadgets will become tricker to spot, and trickier to flaunt, as good design becomes invisible. AI will replace UI and, with voice or gesture or haptics, we might just lessen our addiction to screens.

So, the killer device that comes after the smartphone isn't actually coming. We'll get over it.

How we test


Sophie was Wareable's associate editor. She joined the team from Stuff magazine where she was an in-house reviewer. For three and a half years, she tested every smartphone, tablet, and robot vacuum that mattered. 

A fan of thoughtful design, innovative apps, and that Spike Jonze film, she is currently wondering how many fitness tracker reviews it will take to get her fit. Current bet: 19.

Sophie has also written for a host of sites, including Metro, the Evening Standard, the Times, the Telegraph, Little White Lies, the Press Association and the Debrief.

She now works for Wired.

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