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Three sets of questions

Smartphones and beyond contains answers to three important, inter-linked sets of questions. These questions arise from reflecting on the trailblazing trajectory of the smartphone industry over the last two decades – a trajectory that the author has observed closely, as an avid enthusiast, as an active participant, as a forecaster and futurist, and, at the same time, as a persistent critic.

Here’s the first set of questions. The story of the smartphone industry is far from over. Aggregate progress has been astounding, and shows little sign of slowdown. It’s natural to ask: Where is all this progress going? What comes next after the current round of smartphone innovations? And when we arrive, will we like where we’ve reached?

Second, we should ask: What lies behind that long run of progress? What are the root causes that underpin this technological and economic near miracle? Is there some kind of distinctive “smartphone skillset” which is responsible for this impressive sequence of enhancements?

And here’s the third set of questions. Once we understand the sources of cumulative smartphone progress, can we arrange for similar factors to accelerate progress in other areas of technology, product, and human experience? Can we adapt insight from the smartphone industry – insights from its many failures as well as its many successes – to impact areas such as healthcare, renewable energy, and modern democratic government (to mention just a few fields), that are sorely in need of positive transformation? What does the story of smartphones have to teach enthusiasts and activists for other forms of technology adoption and social improvement?

The Symbian perspective

To address these questions, the author shares his insights from a privileged perspective: the inside story of the remarkable rise and fall of Symbian. Symbian is the comparatively little-known company that, behind the scenes, laid vital foundations for the present-day near-ubiquity of smartphones. Despite its subsequent untimely demise, Symbian has rich connections with the future, the past, and the wider present of smartphones.

The author tells the Symbian story from his unique vantage point as the only person to remain on the company’s senior leadership team throughout the entirety of its turbulent, nerve-racking, roller-coaster existence: from its 1998 formation as an uneasy joint venture based around “the big three” brooding giants of the mobile phone industry of that era – Ericsson, Motorola, and Nokia – right through to its collapse, a dozen years later, under pressure from faster, nimbler, more inspired competitors from Silicon Valley.

Nowadays few people remember much about Symbian – if they ever knew about it in the first place. It was a company that mainly lived in the shadows, away from public glare. But despite its low public profile, Symbian was the indisputable global leader in the smartphone market for most of the first decade of the 21st century. During that time, software developed by Symbian powered the vast majority of the world’s smartphones, as the smartphone market itself grew and grew in scale. Sales of Symbian-powered smartphones went from millions of units being sold in a year, through millions of units being sold in a month, to millions of units being sold each week.

For much of that time, Symbian appeared to have the potential to be “the Microsoft of mobile computing”, with potential revenues and publicity to match. Symbian’s customers included the world’s top five mobile phone manufacturers, and many other regional leaders.

But sales eventually peaked, in 2010, at 110 million units per annum, and fell into steep decline shortly afterwards. Ask people today about smartphones and the words they’ll mention are “iPhone”, “Android” – and (perhaps) “Windows Phone” or “RIM BlackBerry”. The word “Symbian” is a fast-receding memory.

It need not have turned out this way. With different choices and different actions, Symbian could have fulfilled its vision of being “the most widely used and most widely liked software platform in the world”. As the book shows, that vision was credible as well as ambitious, and Symbian’s ultimate accomplishment fell far short of what lay within the company’s grasp.

Learnings

General principles about the progress of complex technology emerge from reflecting on the details of actual examples. These details – the “warts and all”, to use the phrase attributed to Oliver Cromwell – may confound naive notions as to how complex technology should be developed and applied. The details show that failure and success often co-exist closely within the same project. A single project often contains multiple layers, belonging to numerous different chains of cause and effect. It is the author’s sincere hope that an appreciation of real-world examples of these multiple layers will enable a better understanding of how to guide the future evolution of smart technology.

The book chooses to highlight some specific learnings from particular episodes of smartphone success or smartphone failure. For other episodes, it is left to readers to reach their own conclusions. In yet other cases, it’s still far from clear what lessons should be drawn. Subsequent writers will no doubt offer their own suggestions. The author’s task in these cases is to catalyse a discussion, by bringing stories to the table that have previously lurked unseen.

What’s next?

Every year, smartphones become more and more powerful. Their screens are more brilliant, their interfaces more responsive, their inbuilt sensors more intelligent, their processors more turbo-charged, their bundled software more all-encompassing, and their electronic bells and internet whistles ever more numerous. They deliver more, whilst their entry-level prices dip ever lower – making smartphones ever more pervasive as well as ever more powerful.

Smartphones already place into the hands of people in all walks of life around the world a vast quantity of data and insight. The abundance of this on-the-spot real-time knowledge exceeds the scale of even the world’s largest physical libraries, and lies far beyond the imagining of most of our ancestral forebears. Grown accustomed to the potent capabilities of these wonder devices, we now tend to take for granted the resulting near-instant connectivity, community, entertainment, and convenience that they provide. We also take for granted their expandability. “You want to do what? Oh, there’s probably an app for that. And if there isn’t, there soon will be.” Such are our high expectations.

To be clear, smartphones bring frustrations as well as features; pain as well as pleasure. They sometimes brilliantly anticipate user needs, but often leave users mouthing bitter complaints and shaking their fists. Noticing these complaints, astute innovators and entrepreneurs devise new smartphone behaviour with the goal of re-establishing user satisfaction. “Simplify this and extend that and curtail the other…” The complaints therefore feed into the next spiral of progress.

But where are these steps of progress taking us? What are the core factors that have propelled all these improvements? And can we re-use some of that underlying improvement engine for potentially even more significant purposes?

In short, these are questions of the smartphone future, the smartphone past, and the wider present.

It is to these questions that Smartphones and beyond is dedicated.

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