What Was Mobile?: A Broader Look At Tech

Benedict Evans recently wrote an enlightening post “The end of a mobile wave” where discusses what may come after smartphones.

I try to take a different view. I try to focus not on the devices or platforms that have come and gone, but on the underlying needs that have been satisfied. Hence instead of looking at voice, SMS and smartphones, I try to look at the need for communications (including the synchronous and asynchronous modes) and how they have been satisfied. Hopefully this will give us a broader view, and will also help us assess what the AI breakthrough may mean for us.

The needs that tech has satisfied

In my view, tech has been applied to three basic needs.

  1. The need to be entertained: This has come in the form of games, video, music, e-books, etc. Indeed, looking at the the disproportionate value that this category earns from the iTunes Store and the App Store, this is a huge need that tech has helped satisfy. In video, music and e-books, tech has almost already fully satisfied all needs. It is very hard to think of what tech could do more, other than reducing price (maybe indirectly through streaming services). Games however are a different story. We can see VR contributing hugely to the gaming experience, and we can expect further meaningful innovation in this area.
  2. The need for faster and more complex calculations: Originally computers were conceived for doing things like decoding encryption, calculating the trajectory of missiles and simulating atomic bombs. They were valued for the computing power. Today, we see computers controlling robots in factories, controlling huge industrial plants, navigating spacecraft, navigating self-driving trains, calculating the best way to travel to a certain destination (either by car or by using multiple public transport services), processing images for higher visibility, optimising logistic operations, designing new pharmaceutical drug candidates, predicting the best timing to sell or buy financial assets (for better or worse), and even playing Chess or Go. The current deep learning algorithms that have greatly improved machine learning techniques will most likely contribute to this area, on top of other automation/AI techniques that have been worked on for decades; deep learning will be a sustaining innovation that might or might not greatly contribute, depending on how well they perform at the task on hand relative to other techniques. Most of this innovation has happened in a way that has been mostly invisible to consumers. However, a lot of this has transformed how business is done and the efficiency that is attainable. I do not see any saturation in the needs for this market, and I expect technical advances to continue, with or without deep learning. Although on a much simpler but nonetheless much more broader scale, the digital spreadsheet pioneered by VisiCalc and improved on with Multiplan, Lotus 1-2-3 and MS-Excel have also contributed greatly to the need for complex calculations.
  3. The need for communication: Other than entertainment, the largest direct impact of tech on the lives of consumers has been in communications. In the early days of tech, word processors allowed us to write paper documents more efficiently (with easy editing). DTP software allowed us to even create publishing content quickly and cost effectively. Then with the advent of email and the Internet, communication and publishing suddenly became much, much simpler, cheaper and effective. Mobile build upon this trend, allowing people to be contacted wherever they were, first using voice or text, and eventually (with smartphones), using full email or other apps. With easy and cheap video calling now available, one would think that the need for communication has almost been completely satisfied and that we can innovate no further. However, anyone in the real world can attest that these tools are still no substitute for face-to-face meetings. Even with face-to-face meetings, intentions may not be clearly conveyed. The tools that we use, like PowerPoint, are woefully underpowered and inefficient. Therefore, I think that this need to has yet to be sufficiently satisfied. We are still waiting for the ultimate tool that will allow us to remotely communicate as if we were meeting face-to-face. We are even further away from telepathy-like tools that might free us from the limitations of human language, and to communicate as if our brains were directly wired together.

Hence my opinion is that there are still many needs that await a solution, and are upon the trajectory that tech has pushed us thus far.

Future tech and how mobile fits in

Mobile is ultimately about how we carry tech with us all the time. It is how we are entertained on the train. It is how we can access in real-time and on the go, the results of complex calculations. It is about how human beings can communicate better wherever they may be.

As I see it, none of these needs have yet been sufficiently satisfied. We need to do better. Therefore, there is a lot of room for improvement in the devices that we carry around. I cannot pinpoint exactly what these improvements should be, since they are also governed by the cutting-edge technology that is available. One thing is sure; the people and companies who can see beyond the current devices (the ones that have a track record of doing this) are the ones who will likely find what is still left to do.

(And no, I don’t mean the companies that simply say that AI will come next. Technology should never come first.)

Social Network Dynamics

Given Facebook’s very strong earnings report, it is very easy to forget the inherent fragility of a business predicated on social contributions.

In the case of Apple, they create a superb device and sell it. Customers are primarily attracted by the device itself.

In the case of Google, they created a superb Search service and provided it for free. Users were primarily attracted by the speed and accuracy of the results. The attractiveness of the service itself increased the number of users.

In the case of Facebook and other social services however, the situation is not as simple. Facebook itself has nothing to provide its users. Instead its users are what attract new users. Increasing the number of users on Facebook and the content that they share, is the only appeal that Facebook has. If they can increase users, then the attractiveness of Facebook increases exponentially. However, the same mechanism can move in the wrong direction. If users start to feel negatively towards Facebook for any reason and users start to decrease, there is no inherent attractiveness inside the social service that will dampen the negative spiral.

This is the fundamental structural dynamic of a social network. This is the reason why social networks can rapidly arise out of nowhere and quickly dominate local societies. This is also the reason why they could very rapidly disappear if they fall into a negative spiral.

As the social networks find themselves under stronger pressure to monetise their user base, I expect a significant number of them to take a step too far. They will cross a line, causing negative feelings to build up among their users (or in the case of privacy awareness, the line might come to them). This will start the negative spiral that, without any inherent value in the service itself, will be uncontrollable.

Facebook is an amazing success story. However, I worry that they are still but a single misstep away from irrelevance.