More Smart, Less Phone

The computer in your pocket is becoming a mobile command center for your life.

Apple Worldwide Developers Conference.
Apple’s Craig Federighi speaks about the iPhone’s fitness features during the Apple Worldwide Developers Conference on June 2, 2014, in San Francisco.

Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Smartphones don’t get people excited like they used to. Every Apple event these days brings fresh calls for “new product categories” and fresh disappointment when they don’t materialize. Yet bolder companies like Google and Samsung have introduced new types of futuristic mobile gadgets, and it turns out they don’t work very well. As much as the tech press has tried to hype smart glasses and smartwatches, they’re just too small to do very much at this point. They might develop into nifty peripherals for your smartphone, but they’re not going to replace it anytime soon.

We may be stuck with our trusty old pocket-computers for years to come. The good news is that they’re still evolving, probably more rapidly than we tend to give them credit for. I’m not talking about marginally faster processors, better cameras, curved glass, bigger screens, or 3-D displays. I’m talking about new functionalities.

If there was an overarching takeaway from Apple’s annual developer conference this week, it’s that smartphones are becoming more than communications and entertainment devices. They’re becoming the mobile command centers of our lives. And far from pushing them aside, the next wave of consumer technologies is likely to make smartphones more essential than ever.

Today our iPhones and Android phones serve as messaging devices, cameras, Web browsers, music players, gaming and social networking platforms, and yes, sometimes even phones. They’re also starting to become artificial personal assistants. Here are three more things that smartphones are likely to become in the next few years—all of which involve communications between your apps and devices rather than between you and other people.

1. A universal remote control for your appliances

Thermostats are just the beginning. Like it or not, everything from door locks to light bulbs to refrigerators is starting to come equipped with Wi-Fi or Bluetooth connectivity. The idea is that, as in this AT&T ad, you can monitor and control them remotely with your smartphone.

In some cases, these “smart” appliances are designed to learn from your behavior and adapt on their own. Even so, you’ll almost inevitably find yourself reaching for your smartphone when your thermostat’s rudimentary machine intelligence clashes with your unpredictable human needs.

The major smartphone-makers have already put up big stakes in the fledgling “connected home” sector. Samsung has been making connected appliances for some time now, and earlier this year it launched “Smart Home” software for Android phones that lets you control them all from one app. In January, Google got into the game by splashing $3 billion on Nest. And this week, Apple announced HomeKit, a bid to bring the controls for a wide range of third-party connected devices together in a simple native iOS app.

If it works as advertised, you’ll be able to group related appliances into “suites,” so that you can say something like, “Get ready for bed,” and your phone will know to turn off the downstairs lights, adjust the thermostat, and lock the doors. As my colleague Lily Newman pointed out, interoperability could be a problem, at least in the short term. Ultimately, though, I’m guessing tech rivals like Google, Samsung, and Apple will have to make nice if they want their smartphones to be the control centers for your home (or your car, for that matter). If you have to match all your appliances to your chosen mobile OS, most people just won’t bother.

2. A hub for your personal health data

Third-party developers have been working for a few years now on smartphone apps or add-ons that can monitor and track your well-being in various ways. Early efforts included pedometers, medication reminders, nutrition trackers, and even breathalyzers. And while smartwatches designed for things like email and text messages have been a bust so far, fitness bands that monitor your workouts and sync with your smartphone via Bluetooth are already quite popular.

As with smart appliances, the smartphone-makers are starting to realize that they can take the health-tracking trend mainstream by building native hardware and software for it. Samsung took the early lead with its S Health suite, and its latest flagship phone, the Galaxy S5, comes with a built-in heart-rate monitor. Last week it announced a prototype of a new wearable health tracker called Simband along with an open software platform. Apple’s answer on the software side is a new platform called HealthKit. On the hardware side, the focus of rumors about the iWatch has shifted from communications apps to biometrics, perhaps including sleep-tracking functions.

Wearable devices, from wristbands to “smart socks,” are better than smartphones at collecting certain types of health data. But smartphones will remain the best way to store, integrate, and analyze the data.

3. A portable computer that you can control with other devices

Not only will your smartphone be a remote control for your other appliances, it will be another appliance that you can control remotely. That’s not as confusing as it sounds, I promise. Today, if you want to use your smartphone, you usually have to pull it out of your pocket and control it directly. But there are times when that’s particularly inconvenient—like when you’re cooking, driving, or playing with your kids. In those cases, increasingly, you’ll be able to operate basic functions of your phone through other interfaces.

For instance, Google, Microsoft, BlackBerry, and Apple are all working on software that will let you control your phone from your car’s dashboard, and several major car companies have already developed similar capabilities. You’ll be able to make hands-free calls, check your email, or stream songs on Pandora without touching the phone itself.  

Wearable peripherals are another example. Devices like smart glasses and smartwatches won’t replace smartphones anytime soon, but they could still come in handy when you need to answer a call while carrying a package or double-check a recipe while your hands are covered in cookie dough. It’s your phone that’s doing the actual calling or Web browsing, of course—the wearables are just an extension of it.

Finally, improvements in Bluetooth low energy technology could turn your phone into a receptor for notifications that are based on your precise physical location. Apple’s iBeacon system, for example, could allow transmitters placed inside a parking garage to ping your phone to guide you to an open spot. Or, more intrusively, a restaurant might be able to shoot you a coupon for half-off drinks as you stroll past its doors. Similar technologies could also allow you to pay for things at a store with your smartphone without having to take it out of your pocket.

Seven years after the first iPhone and 11 years after the BlackBerry, smartphones may no longer be novel—but in many ways, they’re still consumer technology’s next big thing.