Silicon Valley in search of the next big tech platform

FFIFTEEN There are Steve Jobs announced three new products: a music player, a mobile phone and an Internet communicator. As the then Apple boss gave his presentation, his audience slowly realized that the three products were actually just one gadget: the iPhone. Cue applause, signal Apple’s rebirth and signal a new era of technology as the smartphone overtook the desktop computer as the center of personal computing.

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Today, even Mr. Jobs might be surprised by the number of uses found for his versatile device. The small screen has come to handle banking, networking, card reading, gaming and more. Apple and other phone makers have gotten rich not only from hardware sales (worth $530 billion last year), but also by controlling what happens on the platform, from stores from apps (which brought in $135 billion) to mobile ads (worth nearly $300 billion).

Yet there is growing evidence that the era of smartphones is fading. Phone sales have been down slightly since 2016 as slower technological improvement led to people upgrading less often. In rich countries, already saturated, the decline is particularly marked. So innovators and tech investors are on the hunt for the next big thing, hoping to win not just a juicy hardware market, but also the potential to control the platform on which it all takes place.

The current big idea is virtual reality (VR) helmets, spurred in part by pandemic lockdowns. More promising, but more remote, are glasses for experiencing augmented reality (AR), in which the infographic is superimposed on the real world. Most major US tech companies – including Apple, Google, Meta and Microsoft – as well as Asian giants like ByteDance (the Chinese owner of TikTok) and Sony, are already developing or selling VR or AR helmets. What used to be a niche market is about to get very crowded.

Any claim to have discovered the next big platform deserves caution. There were a lot of false starts. Tablets have been heralded as rivals to the smartphone, but Apple still makes six times more money selling iPhones than it does iPads. Smart homes were seen as another possible mega-platform, but until now Alexa and its ilk have served primarily as jukeboxes and timers. Embedded technology is another platform that has proven useful and valuable, but hardly threatens to become the center of anyone’s digital life. It’s easy to imagine headsets, which are now primarily used for gaming, getting stuck in a similar niche.

What appears to be underway, however, is a gradual consumer movement towards a constellation of new wearables. These include voice-activated smart headphones, which can make calls, read messages and more, and smartwatches, which handle planning, navigation and fitness. A growing line of health tech gadgets measures everything from blood sugar levels to sleep patterns. In America, unit sales of these “wearables” are already close to smartphone sales.

These gadgets are more like accessories for the phone than replacements. But as computing moves away from the pocket to the wrists and ears, a growing share of consumer attention and spending is shifting away from the phone as well. Like VR and AR the glasses become lighter and cheaper, they could be the most powerful part of the portable group.

People aren’t about to give up their phones any more than they threw away their laptops a decade ago. But as they more often interact with headphones or, soon, glasses, more of them will be using their phones as a kind of back office, primarily there to provide processing muscle for other gadgets. As chips get even smaller, phones may not be needed even for that.

Don’t expect all of this to happen right away. Internet-enabled phones were introduced in the late 1990s and failed to catch on in field offices. AR Headsets, bulky, expensive and hitherto used only in industry, are at a similar stage. Yet when technological tipping points are crossed, things can change quickly. Four years after Mr. Jobs introduced his iPhone, smartphone sales have surpassed all laptops and desktops in the world. Silicon Valley’s last great hope is still in the works. But if and when the right product appears, the future can arrive very quickly.

This article appeared in the Leaders section of the print edition under the headline “After the Smartphone”