The importance of context

This post on Stratechery is focused on the emergence of wearables, particularly with the new Snapchat Spectacles, but its opening makes a brilliant point about why the iPhone defined the modern smartphone – it was all about timing it right:

Think about everything that happened between 1992 and 2007 that, at least at first glance, didn’t seem to have anything to do with smartphones:

  • The personal computer moved out of the office and into the home
  • The world wide web was invented and an entire ecosystem was built from scratch
  • Personal electronics proliferated: while by 1992 most people had or used calculators and Walkmans, the 90s saw the introduction of PDAs and digital cameras; the 00s brought handheld GPS devices and digital music players

The reason why we consider 2007 as the start of the smartphone era is that while there were plenty of smartphones released before then… it was the iPhone that, thanks to its breakthrough user interface and ahead-of-its-time hardware, was able to take advantage of all these developments.

Steve Jobs’ introduction of the iPhone missed the camera – phone cameras were already a thing even in “feature phones”, albeit terrible – but that was on par with the “iPod, Phone, Internet”, and arguably still remains the key pillars for smartphones today. However, all of these wouldn’t even have been possible if not for the context of the industry – illustrated by a phone from 1992 that had a touch screen and apps… but sent faxes, because it didn’t have the ability to do much else.

Wearables like the Apple Watch or Fitbit (or even my favoured Pebble) have two tentpoles – health (pumped up pedometers), and notifications (“I’d like to use my phone less.”). Wearables like Google Glass or these new “Spectacles” offer different propositions, but no-one’s quite yet cracked the “must have” tentpole that makes them the New New Thing. Maybe we haven’t seen it yet, maybe wearables is too diffuse or personal a field to be barking up, but until it cracks the “makes my life easier” list, I’m not sure we’ll see quite the space we saw 8-10 years ago emerging in the smartphone space.