In the wake of the news that Apple just made more money, in the last quarter, than any company ever has before in a single quarter of a single year, I decided to write about smartphones and was ready to explain how my life changed when I bought an iPhone and entered the smartphone era…and then I remembered that my iPhone wasn’t my first smartphone. My first smartphone was, in fact, the first smartphone—or at least, one of them.
This was back in spring 2001; moving to a small apartment that wouldn’t have its own land line, I decided to get my first cell phone, and spring for the giant Kyocera 6035. It was a fat, heavy device with a keypad that flipped open to reveal—wait for it—a Palm Pilot! I felt like I was finally catching up with my executive aunt, who’d pull on her glasses and whip out her Palm Pilot to check her e-mail—which she could do only because she’d earlier synced the device and downloaded her messages from her computer. I could check my e-mail on the fly.
I could also sync my contacts—a valuable function for a postcard junkie who liked to send snail-mail—as well as manage my calendar. My favorite feature was being able to assign my speed-dial numbers by frequency of call; when you reset the assignments, your #1 speed dial contact would be the one you called most often, then so on down the line.
The e-mail function was handy, however unwieldy: since digital data networks weren’t a reality for average consumers, the phone operated as a modem. My most epic literary use of the phone—writing entirely in Palm’s Graffiti shorthand—was a multi-day set of “dispatches from the road” sent to several friends via e-mail while my dad, my sister, and I drove cross-country from Massachusetts to Minnesota. One of my friends printed them all out, and a couple of years ago I transcribed them to Tumblr. Excerpt:
The drive to the Philadelphia area was relatively brief, despite an unscheduled detour to New Jersey when Dad moved to the back seat for a nap and left me in charge of the road atlas. (At least we got to cross the beautiful Delaware River—twice.) So we checked into the Colonial Village Motel around four o’clock in the afternoon. The principal attraction here besides the generally quaint atmosphere (Ye Olde Coffee Shoppe opens at eight) is an actual pond with actual geese that actually honk all actual night. (I may yet actually smother them with one of these pillows full of feathers from their kin.)
It was blogging, really—but the blogosphere wasn’t then what it was nine years later, when after abandoning my Kyocera for a series of unremarkable flip phones (despite my sister trying to tell me that having a silver flip phone wasn’t something men really…did), I bought an iPhone 3.
By that point, I’d become a professional Internetter, and buying an iPhone freed me in a way that I can only compare to buying a car. Suddenly, anything I wanted to do on the Internet, I could do right now. Twitter became truly interactive. Facebook became a 24-hour news cycle. I didn’t have to frantically check your e-mail and cross your fingers before leaving my desk. Books? I had an infinite library in my pocket. I never had to delete a text message again.
Of course, I’m describing all the things that smartphone haters hate about smartphones—but I’m also describing the features that have made the smartphone the defining technology of this decade. (Smartphone, not necessarily iPhone; despite Apple’s wild success, the iPhone still commands only a fraction of the total smartphone market.) Now, though, Apple investors—and the rest of us, perhaps a bit less urgently—are wondering what a post-smartphone world will look like. Apple’s standard iPods are now out of production; which iPhone will be the last iPhone, and what will replace it?
Maybe it won’t be any one thing—maybe that will be the twist. Maybe I Love the 2010s will feature C-list comedians who are now in their tweens reminiscing about the days when everyone would be “on their phones,” when there would be that one device per person that did everything. Maybe everything will rise into the cloud, so you don’t need to be on your phone, you just need to be on…a something, which could be a table or a shoe or a harmonica, all of which will be networked to receive and transmit whatever we need to communicate.
Maybe the next interface won’t be visual, it will be multisensory. I now work for a company that’s primarily in the business of creating audio, which sounds old-fashioned but wouldn’t be if the next generation of computing devices run on audio interfaces and podcasts become the new blogs. Will we have devices that tap directly into our brainwaves? Yeah, probably—and like the iPhone, it will probably seem kind of creepy and completely necessary all at once.
Every once in a while, at work, I’ll leave my phone plugged in at my desk while I stand up and go to a meeting, or to get a cup of coffee. Surprisingly often during those tiny expeditions, I’ll find myself reaching fruitlessly for my phone to Instagram something, or send a text, or to Google a fact. Today, it’s hard to go without a smartphone for even a few minutes—but maybe, in stepping away from my phone, I’m stepping into the future. Phones? Where we’re going, we don’t need phones.