The iPhone has stopped changing and that’s a good thing.

Apple’s launch events used to be rock concerts of our time, with crowds in the audience, millions more tuning in online, and social media covering the hairstyle of everyone on stage. But this year’s flagship phone, the iPhone 7, arrived to a collective meh

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And you know what? That’s wonderful! It means the iPhone – and smartphones in general – is finally mature. This is good news for consumers. But the biggest winners will be developers, up for another gold rush after a rather lean period for those who didn’t happen to invent Snapchat.

Smartphones are complete

People started questioning Apple’s direction when the company suffered its first revenue drop in 13 years earlier this year. Even Walt Mossberg, one of tech’s most seasoned journalists, suggested they need an exciting new iPhone. But then the iPhone 7 came along and proved to be anything but exciting, breeding articles claiming that the age of Apple is over

Contrary, the age of Apple is in full swing. Their grand achievement is that phones do not need to be exciting anymore. That the new iPhone is boring might scare Apple’s investors, disappoint geeks, and present bloggers with some clicky headlines. But for consumers, it means the iPhone is a mature, complete device that you won’t be urged to replace in two years because of something newer and shinier.

And where Apple leads, others follow. Or try to. If Samsung Galaxy Note 7 didn’t literally halt and catch fire, the biggest news in smartphones this year would have been the lack of a headphone jack in iPhone 7. There just isn’t anything else left to change. Displays are large, crisp, and responsive. Cameras in phones are better than any standalone camera you have ever used. Computing power is sufficient to support VR. The last missing piece of is battery, but there’s a lot of research in chemistry yet to be done.

Finally, after a decade of growth and constant change smartphones stopped being gadgets and settled in among utilities.

Welcome to Serviceland

Utilities have long lifecycles. You don’t change your PC, television set, or car every two years. And with smartphones out of their gadgety adolescence, you will not need to replace them every two years either. Consumers see that and Tim Cook himself admitted that iPhone 6 was Apple’s last phone to drive people to replacing their handsets en masse.

To answer that, in Cupertino they are shifting focus away from the iPhone the device to iPhone the service. And as it’s happening, the app economy as we know it is fading away. New modes of interaction are coming into play, with conversational UIs and augmented or virtual reality the most (over)hyped of them all. Then there are actionable notifications, voice control, 3D touch, personal assistants, and so on.

If you work in software, this should scream GOLDEN OPPORTUNITY. The Apple’s and Google’s of the world can not build all the software themselves. This year Apple introduced changes to the App Store that developers have been asking for for years: shorter review times, improved discovery, and selling subscriptions. They opened an API for Siri – also something the dev community has been begging for since dinosaurs were around – and are turning iMessage into a platform.

That’s not because someone at One Infinity Loop had a sudden change of heart. They just know they need the support of developers. Apple and Google didn’t invent Uber, Snapchat, or Tinder – services that became immensely popular thanks to their devices – and they’ll not invent the next wave that will be built on top of new platforms, APIs, and interactions.

A new horizon

It’s hard to predict how the maturing of smartphones and shift to services will affect Apple’s bottom line. That’s why they’re busy searching for alternatives. Back in May, Neil Cybart published an excellent analysis of Apple’s spending on R&D. You don’t have to agree with his assessment that Apple is about to become an automotive company, but he is certainly right about one thing. They’re on an unprecedented spending spree because they want to find – or create – the next frontier of consumer technology.

We had 15 years or so defined by personal computers. Then a decade defined by smartphones. You can often see journalists and analysts wondering what’s next in line. Wearables? Personal assistants, like Siri and Alexa? Cars, maybe? Neither. Computing is going to be defined not by a single interface but by fluidly moving from one to another.

Last year, I argued that the next battlefield for Apple and Google is context awareness. Seeing how busy both companies are looking to push beyond smartphones, understanding user context will become even more important. What device the user is on? What device were they on previously? Where are they? What are they doing and why? Cars, watches, phones, PCs, smart objects, VR headsets, they will all need to work with each other seamlessly if we don’t want to go insane. And this is another gold mine for developers. The big guys will set the foundations, a fabric connecting all their major platforms. But building services and whole new interfaces on top of them is uncharted territory. A whole new paradigm yet to be defined. And the race to define it is a high stakes one.
The consumer in me is happy that I don’t need to care about smartphones anymore. I can just get one of the newer models and be happy with it for the foreseeable future. The geek in me is happy that the maturing of smartphones nudged the tech giants to look for the next frontier. And for those of you that are developers, you should be really happy, because both these things present endless opportunities. 

 

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About Wojciech Borowicz

Wojciech is a regular contributor to the Mokriya blog. He reads more than he writes, but in both cases it’s mostly about how technology and interfaces are changing: us and themselves.