The Marginal Value of the Smartphone

The post was originally featured on the Pristine blog. 

I've written about the marginal value of Google Glass. As I continue to make sense of Glass and what it can and can't do, I think it'd be worthwhile to try to make sense of the marginal value of smartphones.

To be clear, this post is focused on modern smartphones: iPhones and Androids. I'm looking at multi-touch capacitive glass smartphones capable of running 3rd party apps.

The marginal value of any hardware platform is defined first and foremost by hardware. The key sensors in smartphones relative to traditional PCs are:

1) mobile system on a chip (SoC)

2) accelerometer / gyro

3) gyro

4) cellular / Wi-Fi / bluetooth

5) digital compass

6) GPS

7) camera (front and back)

8) rear camera flash

9) ambient light sensor

10) multi-touch capacitive glass screen

11) mobile speakers

12) mobile microphones

13) fingerprint reader (iPhone 5S only)

Looked at in this light and with hindsight, it's clear that smartphones delivered the following forms of marginal value relative to their desktop counterparts:

1) mobile computing - you can process and store information anytime, anywhere.

2) mobile camera and mic - you can capture the audio and video of the world around you so that it can be processed, stored, and shared.

3) mobile connectivity - you can send and receive information anytime, any place.

4) context - your device knows your location, the time, its own orientation, and your data from an assortment of services. It can contextually take actions for your based on that information.

5) direct control, touch-based computing - the mouse and keyboard intrinsically disintermediate the human from the content. Interactive touch is clearly one of the most intuitive ways to interact with digital content. The simplicity and ability to control virtual objects through direct touch manipulation is incredibly powerful.

The two most important characteristics above are indubitably mobile connectivity and direct control. Direct control provided the front-end and sex-factor to drive consumer adoption, and mobile connectivity paved the way for cloud computing.

In retrospect, it's actually quite remarkable that people simply couldn't foresee what was possible in mobile computing. Technologists' lack of foresight is probably due to the fact that the rise of mobility coincided with the rise of cloud computing, and that the two fueled one another's growth. It was difficult to envision a future in which mobile computers could do so much even though they had so few local resources; the cloud solved that problem, and drove cross-platform and cross-form factor innovation that was never before possible.