Hardware investigate

Smartphones and tablets are the new cool but here's why it can't last

Smartphones and tablets have replaced cars as objects of desire that transport their owners into another world, but mobile tech's time in the limelight may be limited.

Cars have been replaced as aspirational objects by the smartphone and the tablet. Photo: Shutterstock

Written on BA287 flying London to San Francisco and dispatched a day later from a coffee shop via a free wi-fi service at 5Mbps.

For almost as long as I can remember, people have aspired to own a car. They have pursued and purchased specific marques because they perceived them as cool and desirable. But this pattern of behaviour no longer seems to hold true in the West, with people now mostly opting for utility along with a number of other telling attributes.

The big questions we now ask are:

  • Will it get me from A to B in reasonable comfort?
  • Will it carry my family and all our stuff?
  • How safe is it?
  • How reliable is it?
  • How much does it cost?
  • What is the cost of ownership?
  • What does it do to the gallon?
  • Does it have a good air-conditioning system?
  • Will the entertainment system link with my phone?
  • Are there enough drinks holders?

Who cares about brand and design anymore? Cars are designed using the same CAD package and all look alike, and the components are produced by the same plants and merely assembled by the automotive companies, which have become system integrators.

In short, cars are no longer cool, no longer technology. They work all the time under all conditions, and so people commonly perceive them as boring necessities rather than luxuries.

If there is a future for cars, it is a subliminal one. Cars are going to go driverless - yes, driverless, just like elevators, trains and, for a good deal of the journey, modern aircraft.

We can already see the proof-of-principle demonstrators coming out of numerous universities, military projects, and companies such as Google.

What are the implications? How about 90 per cent fewer vehicles on the road and no parking lots; almost no traffic accidents; greater fuel economy; less money and fewer resources wasted; and more up-time for you and me.

Who still enjoys driving? Only a few pistonheads, it would seem. Arguably, we would sooner get on with some work or relax, rather than get tensed up and tired driving on overused and overcrowded roads.

But what do people now aspire to? How about smartphones, laptops and tablets - the iPhone, iPad, BlackBerry et al? These are the new cool, the new technology and the window to an exciting online world offering new freedoms in the same way cars did in the physical world from about 1910 onwards.

So, how long will the new cool last? When it stops being technology. When it all works all the time, every time, trouble-free, and when all the products look the same.

With tablets and smartphones, we're still in the cool stage, but it won't last for ever. Certainly on the issue of a consistent look, we seem to be there as all phones look like black slabs of glass, but we still have some way to go before they achieve complete reliability.

About

Peter Cochrane is an engineer, scientist, entrepreneur, futurist and consultant. He is the former CTO and head of research at BT, with a career in telecoms and IT spanning more than 40 years.

28 comments
peter
peter

There are lots of ways you can waste your life - and driving a car is as good as any...

garret.hoffman
garret.hoffman like.author.displayName 1 Like

You can have my steering wheel when you can pry it from my cold dead fingertips. I see the advantage for a driver-less car only in the aspects of commuting in heavy traffic, and long road trips where the potential to fall asleep at the wheel is very high... (ie: driving on the I5)

CharlieSpencer
CharlieSpencer

Would you mind naming a few, or providing links to site that list those companies and the amounts of their bailouts?

paul.ob.tech
paul.ob.tech

Not too many tech companies get multi-billion bailouts from the Gov. Just how much are they losing, and the taxpayer paying, per car.Tech companies just have to close down. If the cars were marketed at cost+, how much would they cost. And should these car companies indulge in very very expensive car racing events when taxpayers are footing the bill?

fishystory
fishystory like.author.displayName 1 Like

I think the big difference of why cars appear 'less cool' than smartphones and tablets is because 'cool' cars are so much more expensive than regular commuter cars. For example, in my home country of Australia, Apple iPads and other 'cool' tablets are actually cheaper or on par with price when compared to 'uncool' tablets/notebooks/netbooks on offer. The same applies to smartphones, such as the iPhone and Samsung Galaxy, when compared to ordinary 'uncool' phones such as my boring Sony Ericsson phone or my sister's LG. Cars, however, are another story. A standard commuting car only costs between $10000-$20000 in Australia when new, whereas a 'cool' car usually costs triple the price (or more). We're also talking far more expensive products, in which the vast majority of people cannot afford to buy from most prestigious models. Gadgets, on the other hand, are much more affordable and generally 'cool' tablets/smartphones only cost a few hundred extra dollars, as opposed to 'cool' cars which range from the high-five's to seven figures and cost tens of thouands more. Not to mention, cars have extra costs associated with them such as fuel, servicing, vehicle registration and car insurance fees. Buy an expensive car and the related costs also increase as most 'cool' cars are more expensive to insure, fill up, service andm in some countries, can even attract government taxes because the vehicle is a luxury item. Fortunately, tech gadgets do not suffer many of these ongoing costs, with the exception being the phone or ISP company offering access to their network. This is why it appears that cars are no longer cool, but it's just consumers being more frugal in an economically uncertain time. Many still want to display their wealth and affluence, so tech gadgets are a prime example which allows them to splurge without hurting their bank account.

joshuaburke
joshuaburke

This is the way of things. Items go from awesome innovation to a commodity service. But, nothing will go away. Change? Yes. Evolve into something new? Yes. But, the smartphone/tablet space is here until the paradigm shift when we find the new form factor and even then they will probably remain. Since the dawn of the laptop we've wanted to "pop the screen off" and use it. At least I have. We grew up watching Captain Kirk approve orders on thin little tablet-esque devices and lieutenant Ahura receiving space communications over her "bluetooth-like" headset. These modalities won't expire, they'll just evolve into something else, the new cool.

markm52
markm52

Maybe. Cars that drive them selves will hardly reduce the amount of cars on the road by anything near 90%. In fact, that kind of change may bring an increase in the number of cars on the road, as, why limit drivers to be 16? If the car drives itself then anyone can have one. Fuel and highway construnction and maintenace costs arn't going away either. As you say, modern planes just about fly themselves but we sure are not seeing a reduction in number in the air, are we? In my opinion, the computer tablet IS the computer of the future. Get on board now!

DittoHeadStL
DittoHeadStL like.author.displayName like.author.displayName 2 Like

Even if you concede that cars aren't cool any more, I don't think 90% of the driving population will give them up. Even if they're not cool, they're still a necessity. Washing machines aren't cool either, but a lot of people prefer them to going to the laundromat.

CharlieSpencer
CharlieSpencer

the original article didn't suggest cars or smart phones would go away. The point was that phones and tablets would one day lose their 'cool' luster, as cars have supposedly done, becoming more like the mundane necessities you describe.

Vulpinemac
Vulpinemac

Why does Ford build and sell the Mustang and the GT(40)? Why does Chevy build the Camaro and the Corvette? Why does Chrysler build the Jeep Wrangler or the Viper (yes, it's coming back next year). Why does Fiat build the Abarth 500; Lamborghini it's supercars, etc...? For some--obviously quite a few--cars are still 'COOL'! Why is this discussion in an article about smartphones and tablets? Because the cool factor will still exist in much the same way as those high-end gaming platforms exist for the PC--they're not absolutely needed, but the user is still going to try to have the fastest machine around. As for cars going away? No. Whether you're in Europe, Asia or the Americas, the car is still a necessity for many if not most of the people outside of big cities. A town like Bitburg, Germany doesn't have a train station and the bus to Trier only runs a couple times a day. If you need to catch a train to Koln (Cologne) or Berlin, you have to have some sort of transportation. In the US it's little different, though train service is far more scarce and bus service between cities isn't much better (and far more uncomfortable.) London, New York, Paris, Rome, even Washington DC all have some form of Underground and/or surface rail/bus service; most have a combination of two or all three services. People who live and work IN those cities have little need for personal transportation but if their work suddenly changes to where commuter services are spotty or irregular then suddenly that vehicle becomes an absolute necessity--even if it's only a bicycle or mo-ped. Are we ever going to see that 90% reduction? I don't believe so; too many people will refuse to accept life in a fishbowl when they have the ability to have some measure of personal privacy. Even the greatest arkologies (sp) designed would never satisfy a majority of the people. Maybe, just maybe when everybody works from home and nobody has to ever travel to another location for any reason will we see a reduction in personal transportation vehicles. Then those vehicles will be used for pure fun.

DittoHeadStL
DittoHeadStL like.author.displayName 1 Like

"What are the implications? How about 90 per cent fewer vehicles on the road and no parking lots;" OK, they won't go away COMPLETELY... just 90%.

chaz15
chaz15

I spend enough time on computer and on the internet at home! Cars are fun if they have enough performance - and I enjoy driving! Slow drivers are like slow phones! I just need a phone for emergency or to contact someone in a hurry or send a less hurried text! So Tablets and Smartphones are no-brainers for me, but I'd be a bit lost without my car! I even don't use or have a SatNav, as I prefer to find my own way to places, and there's always Google Maps if I get stuck! So, yes, I think the novelty will wear off with Tablets though I might think differently if I was a regular train user for lengthier trips! Smartphones are just too complicated for me to be bothered with. Simplicity and speed are all I need with a phone or a car! The ongoing high cost of hi-tech electronics where things rarely manage to reach five years of use, and mobile services continue to be (mostly!) enormously expensive are other big factors in things over time!

peter
peter

Chaz = Hmm, something of the cobblers wife here! I spend my life on a screen - and I live in the UK too. I spend a huge amount of my time travelling, but I avoid driving at all costs! It is a real pain in the UK and rarely an enjoyable experience compared to North America. Social norms are hard to generalise, but as I watch you and old alike the conversation (piston heads being the exception) is seldom about cars and there is far more discussion about devices and content. Interestingly, wrist watches of enormous size and gaudiness are on the rise too... so the next phase will be interesting as our devices become wearable :-)

dcolbert
dcolbert

Peter... interesting you would be from the UK and I would use London as an example in my response above. My Nephew's Irish father-in-law sat with us after dinner one evening and asked me wife, "Now, what would you say if you saw a man driving a BMW back home in Sacramento?" My wife responded, "Donovan owns two of them". After an uncomfortable pause, Aiden responded, "Here in Liverpool, you would say, 'that man is a drug dealer'." :) Aiden lived through the global depression and the war and was a doctor and a frugal man. If a thread came off his jacket, he took it and wrapped it around a piece of cardboard. "Waste not want not," was his personal philosophy. I wonder if there are possibly some cultural and generational aspects to your thesis in this piece?

CharlieSpencer
CharlieSpencer

What's cool about phones and tablets isn't the hardware technology; it's what you can do with them. They'll stop being cool when new applications with mass appeal stop appearing at the current overwhelming pace. Cars do one thing only: they're transportation. The applications run on these devices are capable of multiple functions. THAT'S what's cool. Disclaimer: the above is posted strictly for the sake of discussion. I personally find little 'cool' about these devices, but they don't fit my computing or communications needs.

Vulpinemac
Vulpinemac like.author.displayName 1 Like

This just proves it. Personally, I don't purchase a gadget because it's 'cool', I purchase it because I have a real, perceived purpose for it and, unlike the argument above about iMoney I prefer a product that is reasonably reliable from the outset. I don't 'show off' that gadget because I put a case of some sort on it for at least a measure of protection and that case tends to obscure or hide the logo of the gadget. To me, the car says a lot more about the person. Unlike many (my parents, for example) a car is far more than "just transportation". I like to have fun in my car while still having some measure of utility; though now that I'm married a second car is becoming a necessity so having one utility car and another pure pleasure car is not out of the question. A car is a more visible possession than a gadget unless a person goes out of his way to flaunt it--something many anti-Apple zealots claim of Apple i-gadget users but which I've seen many others do with their own toys as well. A car simply can't be hidden unless your home has a garage and you bother to actually put your car in your garage. You know someone who has a Jeep Wrangler probably enjoys going out into the wild, perhaps camping but certainly getting off the beaten path while a Hummer driver has it for the 'cool' factor. A Camaro is fun for the street, a Corvette is a status symbol--just like Mustang vs GT(40) for Ford. Yes, it seems that so-called SUVs (jacked-up station wagons) and crossovers (old-style big sedans in new bodies) are the rage of the day, but even there you see status symbols with Porsche and other expensive 'marques' getting into the act. Maybe I'm different; I see the car as pleasure while technology is my life. Then again, I don't have to live in my car two hours a day, every day any more; I work from home.

CharlieSpencer
CharlieSpencer

As you noted, opinions vary. Just remember there may be factors affecting a driver's vehicle choice that you're unaware of. For example, I'm currently driving a 2003 Ford Ranger. I have no use for a truck specifically; only twice in 18 months have I used it to haul things that wouldn't otherwise go in my wife's Hyundai. But the '94 Sentra died (gods rest its little metallic soul) coincidental with my parents moving cross country, and my father didn't need the Ranger any more. While it doesn't come close to my 30-mpg standard when -purchasing- a vehicle, it was free. So I have a truck for no other reasons than it runs and its paid for; it would never have otherwise been my first choice.

CharlieSpencer
CharlieSpencer

Switching vehicles, or not interacting with you? :-) As to why I haven't traded the truck, I haven't eliminated the option. Right now it boils down to two factors. One, I can feed the truck for about $90-$110 a month. I don't think what I'll save on gas with another vehicle will be enough to offset the payments; the old Sentra took around half that. Two, I absolutely hate buying a car. I have no negotiation skills.

Vulpinemac
Vulpinemac

I once adopted one of my own parents' cars for a similar reason--they little realizing how close to dead it was which forced me to drop a new engine into it after more than a year of monthly repairs that exceeded the payment for a new car. I couldn't save money simply because I had to keep that car running so I could keep my job. It became a vicious cycle. I drive what I do now because it's something I choose to drive. I realize that that truck meets your basic transportation needs, but as you said it's not one you would have chosen for yourself. Why didn't (don't) you trade it for something that gives you what you really want, economy and maybe some real pleasure? I'm sure you could find a second-hand Sentra that would save you gas money enough to maybe even help defray its purchase price.

peter
peter

Charlie = Nice to meet you and thanks for the input. It is rare I get a comment from someone who has seen more life than I have :-) On your comment - I think it is both - get a poorly designed phone/tablet and the whole web experience is degraded. I regularly try new devices and a lot of them are ugly, clunky and no fun to use. Utility, ease of use and performance are enhanced by 'good looks'. It used to be that way with cars.....but ugly seems to have taken over that part of the design world. As I am a 'mobile worker' I find a use for most things - but pads don't pack the computing power or the interface that I need to do my job. Engineering demands a bit more of an 'engine'. So my golden rule is simple - 'fit for purpose rules' - but it has to look good and do a good job! In the end it it about RoI in terms of time and $$.

Slayer_
Slayer_ like.author.displayName 1 Like

Even with your disclaimer. I think a cool car is far better than a cool phone.

CharlieSpencer
CharlieSpencer

I don't find anything cool about cars. Like I said, they're transportation, pure and simple. I have only three requirements when shopping for a vehicle - automatic transmission, cruise control, over 30 mpg. The best vehicle is one that runs and is paid for.

peter
peter

Slayer = Depends on the country and the culture you live in - and the vast majority of humanity do not own a car but they do have a phone. Japan, Korea, Scandinavia and the EU are almost orthogonal to North America which is more car centric than anywhere else on the planet. City dwellers mostly avoid car ownership whilst those in rural areas find it hard to live without one, but no one now lives without a phone...

dcolbert
dcolbert like.author.displayName 1 Like

I don't mind a car that can be put in a "Fully automatic" mode that drives itself the whole length of I-80 from coast to coast. Heck... at one point it'll probably pull into service centers and a robot will fill you up and you'll pay by proximity - so you can sleep the entire way and make long distance automotive travel far more safe, practical, enjoyable and efficient. But if I want to be able to knock it out of fully automatic into a true 6 speed manual experience with clutch in the twisties - I better have that option. I agree completely with you danaotech. But this just illustrates that lots of people aren't buying cars as practical utility appliances. They're still buying cars on an emotional level. The recent Fiat commercials alone debunk such a suggestion.

dananotech
dananotech like.author.displayName 1 Like

I have a MINI Cooper S Convertible (with Sport Package and Limited Slip Differential, etc) (by BMW :-) that is an incredible car. Sporty as hell and when you need it, you can fit in 4 people. On the weekends, I autocross it, and it is hard to beat. If you really want sporty, get the JCW version. I think that the majority of people really could use automatic driving cars, but for lots of us, we really LOVE driving, and would miss the challenge and fun of really pushing a great handling car through some really great roads. I can see the Interstates going to cars that drive themselves, but the technical challenges to robotic cars on country roads are so difficult to overcome, that I don't see that happening for a long time.

dcolbert
dcolbert like.author.displayName like.author.displayName 2 Like

A car is still a major sign of affluence in most western culture - and almost nowhere is this most evident than in major metro areas. As England transitioned out of a long economic downturn into an economic leader at the start of the 2000s, you DIDN'T see a lot of expensive cars in London. You saw older models, and lower-end models (Vauxhalls and e30 base model BMWs for example). Go back 7 years later, after the economic recovery in London had really caught fire, and there were Lotus Elises, BMW M3s and M5s, Aston Martins, Bentleys, Range Rovers and other high-end cars on every street, all day long. These are all gas guzzling models in a nation where gas is 4 times as expensive as in the United States. This isn't the case just in London. The only place I've ever seen a Maibach is in New York. In my own suburbs, I've recently seen a Lamborghini and a Bentley. The change is that the gulf between affluence has grown, where the top percentage of income earners can afford MORE of the BEST cars, and middle and lower earners can hardly afford a car at all - so you've seen more of the typical city drivers giving up their cars in metro areas like this for mass transit options, smart-cars, and other methods of transportation that entail significant personal sacrifice. I've got a Cadillac Escalade that is my comfortable, people moving, utility vehicle. I've also got a BMW Z3 that is my fun, sporty, weekend drop-top ride. My wife drives a BMW X5. I'm probably a piston head. Automobiles are still the #1 gadget that I lust after (right now I have my eyes on some sort of 4 seat, retractable hard top European Sport convertible, maybe an A5 - although I'm partial to BMW and I'd also certainly consider a Porsche). But nearly everyone I know in my income bracket still wants luxury, sport and exotic cars, and most of them aren't piston heads. They are interested in the prestige, luxury, and marquee. The people below that bracket are only disinterested in these kind of cars because they seem like goals that are unrealistic and frivolous. Let an average income earner win a lottery today and tomorrow they're going to be buying expensive cars, sprawling McMansions, boats, and other luxury TOYS. There is a lot more going on with the car analogy than a simple "plateau" in automotive technology that makes them utilitarian grocery-getters for soccer moms. Now, I do think the author is onto something here. I worry about the mobile device revolution driving us toward a future where machines are consumer driven appliances that dis-empower end users and remove the freedom to use the device as the end user sees fit. I see the Windows 8 ARM devices with locked boot-loaders as a troubling step in this direction - but Microsoft isn't alone. Apple is guilty too, and even Android devices are not as easily flexible as the bare slate that is a traditional, DIY bare-bones PC. These new gadgets are an evolution from a bare-bones 1965 muscle car that you could work on and hot-rod yourself to a modern ODBC-II vehicle that you need to hook up into advanced electronics in order to diagnose and repair. They'll broaden the reliability and accessibility, catering to the lowest common denominator of user-space, while taking away the ability of the most interested users to really push the limits of the device. This future of cars that drive themselves bothers me - because I *like* to open it up and find the top end of my BMW on a long stretch of empty Nevada highway. It may not be the most responsible thing to do, but I think it is a good thing that I have the freedom to do so and risk the consequences. In a world where cars drive themselves, I don't see there being an over-ride that allows me to pursue that thrill. Obviously a lot of the population seems to prefer a world where some jerk in a Porsche can't blow by you on highway 50 doing 140 miles per hour. I think we lose something as a free society when that comes to pass - and I think that mobile device technology is headed for similar limitations. We're headed for a world where all of our gadgets force us to paint within the lines that are drawn for the lowest common denominators of society. Sounds like a real recipe for excellence, diversity and achieving new horizons when we'll all live in a world where you can't think, or drive, or act outside of the box. Although maybe this is why I always find myself in trouble. I must not have taken the right message from the following book when I was a kid. http://www.epinions.com/review/Tootle_Little_Golden_Storybook_Ser__by_Crampton_Gertrude_Books/content_34442219140?sb=1

mario.aguirre
mario.aguirre

... you have to take in account that this changes amongst social stages. At the very beginning, cars were something that only high society could afford. Today, iPhone, iPads and iAnything require high amounts of iMoney but are the dream of everyone. The acquisition power of customers will change along with the technology cost, but this technology will still be the dream of a lot of people. (And I'm not going to talk about the real cost of any tablet, where factories sell them with prices starting at USD 50 or less).

peter
peter

Mario = Nice one! The other day I was on a train in the EU and the guard had a better and more expensive mobile than I did - he also had a far more expensive wrist watch. But i have no idea what car he drove! Social and tech norms are on the move for sure! BTW - the USA is far more 'car centric' than any other country and over the past 30 years I have watched as cars have become devalued and less prized. The same has happened in the EU - but much faster. Of course the very rich can afford to buy something unusual, hand crafted, and very expensive if they are so moved!