Randall Stephenson knows that 5G may make phones themselves obsolete.
“We carry around these devices and they’re bigger than they should be… I say they go away,” AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson said to the Economic Club of Washington, D.C. “It is conceivable that we’re going to be moving into a world without screens, a world where (glasses are) your screen. You don’t need any more form factor than (that).”
Stephenson’s comments are, of course, meant to promote the power and ubiquity of 5G networks coming from his industry, promising to move storage and computing out of phones and onto the network. But he also shines a light on the dirty little secret of all phones on all networks: They’re a crutch. They’re the lightest crutch we’ve been able to devise to access media, communications, information and navigation, but still a crutch. They both enable media experiences and sit in the way of them.
Eliminating the phone sounds nuts today, but the phone itself sounded crazy 20 years ago: An expensive, bulky, fragile, easy to lose device that takes up the one empty pocket or free hand you have left and litters your consciousness with charge anxiety.
But along came the Treo, in 2002, and the tradeoff made sense. The iPhone arrived five years later with a full touchscreen and apps universe to cement the trend. Can head-up displays and augmented reality virtualize all of that as Stephenson envisions? Yes and no.
The phone as a physical interface is being attacked from many sides, with augmented reality glasses aiming to handle visuals and gaze detection, ubiquitous smart voice technology becoming ambient in every devicearound us and promising to make the air around us one big control panel. And that’s never even counting the surging investor interest in brain computer interfaces.
But AR is the lynch pin to a phoneless vision, yet it suffers from consumer malaise: We don’t see a compelling reason to wear tech on our faces. Comfort and vanity, two huge drivers of consumer decisions, are standing in the way. The last successful breakthrough in tech worn on our face was in 1784, when Ben Franklin invented bifocals. Since then we’ve been on an odyssey to get visual tech off of our faces. Most of us hate wearing glasses so much that we’ll stick plastic discs in our eyes or pay someone to aim a hot laser at them.
Then there’s reliability: 5G is credibly expected to be far more reliable than 4G (after a multi-year maturation process) but it will always be less reliable than something stored on a solid state device you carry. 5G network failures may be few, but that same robustness may move our relationship with a network from reliance to entitlement, instantly exhausting our patience when we do encounter a slow or dead spot. Today’s online experiences like Spotify or Google Maps cache a lot of data on your device in case their connection is lost, and you often don’t even know its happening. A phoneless future of light, slim glasses may not offer a spacious, powerful place for a cache to live.
When people ask me what replaces the phone, I tell them nothing does in the next handful of years, but something does after that. The benefits of an immersive interface overlaid on the world around us, with voice, gesture and gaze driving it, are too powerful to deny. But our comfort, vanity and impatience — not electronics — are the main hurdles.