The demise of smarter rectangles

When a man like Sundar Pichai, responsible for the platform powering the majority of the world’s mobile devices, speaks up, one does well to take note. Android is understood today in the context of how well it performs on the little slabs of plastic, metal and glass we call smartphones and tablets. It is easy to mistake these devices, Android and otherwise, as an industry in themselves – the ‘mobile industry’ which will gather for its annual jamboree in Barcelona next week.

However, in his recent interview with Forbes, Google’s Pichai provides a reminder of something many in the MEX community will have sensed for some time. ‘Mobile’ is best understood not as a device type or an industry, but rather just one of several environments which influence the way in which users connect to digital services addressing more fundamental needs:

“Not just evolving the mobile experience we have today, thinking beyond mobile. I think users will use computing in many places, on multiple screens, it will be much more integral in their lives.” — Sundar Pichai, Google

Each iteration of smartphone and tablet products has represented less and less real change for users. We have reached a point where there is little to choose between products – small differences in materials or specifications – which may fuel lengthy debates among enthusiasts, but represent a sea of uniformity to the majority.

Mobile World Congress this year has the feeling of a business casting around for inspiration but unwilling to ask itself the hard questions about how it needs to change.

There are of course many permutations of today’s smartphones and tablets still to come, and many billions more in revenue to be wrung for this appetite for smart rectangles which help users frame their digital world. However, there is a new wave of change waiting to happen, and it is contingent upon digital services breaking out of the rectangular frames which have started us on the road – but by no means represent the end of the journey for digital.

There will be many false starts in this transformation and many opportunities along the way to point to the huge numbers of phones and tablets still being sold. Every big shift happens this way, as the old guard comforts itself that new upstarts are temporary or inferior. Google’s own Glass and Android Wear products have attracted just this sort of criticism – and rightly so, for they are, at present, unfit for the consumer mainstream. Yet, little by little, momentum builds and while the incumbents seek new ways to sell old ideas, new players fly under the radar until one of them surges on the strength of a simple innovation which resonates with consumers.

The difference today is that there are no excuses for missing the growth of this new wave. We’ve seen it before in the transition from fixed to mobile computing and the disruption patterns observed in countless other established industries. All the signs are out there to suggest future digital experiences will be distributed, multi-touchpoint architectures which thrive on the strength of their interconnections and their ability to transcend fixed form factors.

If you’re still thinking about how many more ‘smarts’ you can cram into a prettier rectangle, you’ve already taken your eyes off the wave building on the horizon.

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