Apple’s iPhone is doomed. It’s going to die. We’ve been hearing about various “iPhone killers” ever since Apple’s first smartphone was released back in 2007. Apparently, the iPhone has more lives than a litter of kittens.
Sometimes when we read about an iPhone killer, it’s just some random also-ran device that a blogger or tech journalist is overselling in a headline. He or she knows the device in question has no prayer of killing anything, let alone the iPhone, but “iPhone killer” will always draw more eyeballs than “piece of junk you’ll forget existed a month from now.” Other times though, people actually believe the device they’re talking about is indeed something that is going to supplant the iPhone as the most popular piece of consumer electronics in the world.
So far they’ve been wrong but some day they’ll be right. Today, of course, is not that day.
At one point in time, Piper Jaffray analyst Gene Munster insisted that we were a year away from the release of the iTV, Apple’s line of flat-screen televisions. Seeing one year into the future has always been difficult for the analyst, who has repeatedly made wrong calls about the future of Apple’s lineup. So naturally, he’s now gazing as far as 20 years into the future.
In a note sent to clients earlier this week, Munster explained that Apple is planning to slowly walk its way into the emerging virtual reality market. This is undoubtedly true. But his claims that Apple’s VR and “mixed reality” products will soon cannibalize iPhone sales are likely a bit off track, to put it nicely.
Of note, Munster doesn’t explain what he means by “mixed reality,” but I’m guessing that he’s referring to augmented reality, which mixes virtual objects into the physical world around us. I agree that AR has a much brighter future than VR, but that’s another article entirely.
“We believe MR (Mixed Reality) is critical to Apple long term,” Munster wrote. He continued, “Over the next 20 years, the screen as we know it will slowly go away.”
It’s not really that surprising, though. Keep in mind that this is the same analyst who has already slapped a price tag on the Apple Car despite the fact that no one on the planet outside of Apple knows anything at all about it. Actually, no one even knows whether Apple is actually working on a car or just software that might power autonomous vehicles.
“We believe that Jobs instilled the idea of innovation in Apple without the dogma of holding on to old markets that move away from you whether you like it or not,” the analyst opined. “Apple has historically cannibalized products including the iPod via the iPhone, Macs for a short time with iPads and perhaps again with the iPad Pro, and iPads with the iPhone 6/6S +. While Apple has yet to launch a product that cannibalizes the iPhone franchise, we believe that the company realizes that the smartphone as we know it won’t last forever. To this end, we believe Apple continues to explore mixed reality and virtual reality, which in our opinion will be the future of computing.”
Smartphones as we know them today certainly won’t be at the center of our digital lives forever. Indeed, one day the iPhone will not exist. But is virtual reality the thing that will replace it? No, no it’s not. How about “mixed reality” or augmented reality? Perhaps, but let’s think about it.
The smartphone market has grown into the monster it is now because these devices put the power of a computer in the palm of your hand. Humans are not stationary creatures; we move from place to place. But no matter where we are, a smartphone can travel with us and it’s always instantly accessible. The same cannot be said of a desktop computer, a laptop or even a tablet.
It’s probably safe to say that whatever ultimately kills the iPhone and smartphones in general will need to be portable.
Humans also need an interface and a means of controlling the software contained in that interface. Right now, the smartphone touchscreen checks both of those boxes. Apps appear on the screen while taps and swipes control the apps. Simple always wins and right now it doesn’t get any simpler than that.
So it’s also probably safe to say that whatever kills off smartphones will need to offer a simple interface with simple controls.
Today, there are already VR and AR solutions that are portable and easy to control. But they run on smartphones. More complex solutions that offer more impressive experiences also exist, but they need expensive high-end computers to function.
Devices like the Oculus Rift and Microsoft HoloLens will indeed be portable someday, but it won’t even come close to happening by 2020, which is when Munster says Apple’s focus will begin to shift toward AR devices that will cannibalize the iPhone in the same way the iPhone cannibalized the company’s iPad business. And when a HoloLens type device is finally portable, how will we control it? Are an AR helmet and separate controllers really going to replace the smartphone? Will we talk to ourselves or flail, poke and swipe in the air while walking down the street to control these devices?
Or maybe Munster is suggesting devices like Google Glass are the future…
Again, I’m not denying that the iPhone is a goner. It will one day be a distant memory people recall and chuckle about in much the same way we now recall VCRs and the Walkman. “From the moment we are born, we begin to die.” But as is the case with most predictions we’ve seen so far, Munster’s timeline is all wrong. And anyone else who believes that the iPhone’s demise will begin in four years is also wrong.
The iPhone plenty of good years left. The iPhone 7 cycle will be a big one, and sometime soon after it appears as though Apple is getting ready to introduce the biggest smartphone market disruption the world has seen since the original iPhone debuted. The company won’t stop there, and VR and AR will still be in their infancy. All signs suggest that these emerging technologies will indeed grow into something big, but it’s a bit early to start writing the iPhone’s obituary.
Dollars and Sense is a recurring column by BGR Executive Editor Zach Epstein. It offers insights on subtle changes in and around consumer electronics with the potential to have a broad impact on companies that drive the industry.