The Zimbabwean Perspective

A look at our lives and the tech we use in them

Editorial Tech

The smartphone defined the last decade in tech (and beyond)

From our finances to our relationship statuses, these things are everywhere now….

We already spent a bit of time talking about the last decade in tech here, from the most definitive products to streaming services and their supposed utopian appeal to a few other articles and videos you might want to check out. But just like we said on the article about definitive tech products, technology, and most importantly its impact on human lives all over the world was largely centered on one thing; the smartphone.
Smartphones are essentially the most important consumer tech product from the past ten years, and if you’re really wondering why, chances you’ve been living under a rock on a different planet. Because if you’re like most people, chances are you’re reading this article on your phone, and if you decide to share it on social media, you’ll do it there as well, along with answering those few messages you forgot to answer in the morning and maybe checking a calendar appointment as well. That already captures information consumption, communication, life or work scheduling and information sharing. Ten or more years ago, you might have needed up to four different devices to do each of those things effectively, yet these days it’s not an understatement to say someone holds their whole world inside their smartphone.

The devices themselves have continued to evolve to suit as many aspects in our lives as reasonably possible, with their two main strengths being a) the phones’ designs in themselves, and b) the power of the internet.  The latter is pretty straight forward because well, the “smart” in smartphone essentially means internet connected and capable of doing a myriad of things through the web. Smartphones are at their best on the web , because they’re essentially designed for it, and ironically enough as the past decade went on the web itself became more designed for smartphones. Websites became more mobile and touch friendly, allowing us to conveniently access information easily in an instant, media content started changing orientations to fit the portrait orientations of most phones and more exclusively, the world’s most popular apps and services started launching as mobile only or mobile first, with social platforms like Instagram and Snapchat being key examples. Apps such as instant messengers became more ubiquitous but also evolved to suit more than just basic person-to-person  texts, instead group messages, calls, voice and video calls became more prevalent, making messaging apps like WhatsApp or WeChat become whole communication hubs for people, and inspiring more purpose built messaging platforms like Slack and Microsoft Teams, which now channel messaging and information sharing towards businesses and workgroups instead. And of course the cloud, while not being as impactful in developing countries like ours, enabled phones to actually take on full PCs when it comes to their productivity capabilities, with obvious tasks like word processor apps being enhanced by internet connectivity, but also specialist apps such as video and photo editing suites having most of the processing done in the cloud and the results being downloaded back into your phone. Combine the value of these apps with the already mentioned scheduling and calendar apps, and other specialized uses like make-up tutorial apps or even menstruation tracking, and you start to realize that the power of the internet in a smartphone could cater to almost all of one’s life.
Apps have essentially become everyday life tools
But of course, the internet is still one half of a smartphone’s value proposition, the other being its aforementioned design, aimed at integrating into your life as much as possible. While smartphones have certainly gotten bigger, they’ve always been considerably smaller than laptops or tablets, making them easier to carry around and simply pull out when you want to use them or just glance at some information on them without having to fully engage with them. This of course isn’t surprising, after all the point of a phone is being mobile, and a smartphone is meant to be the computing device you have with you wherever you go. And yes, by computing device we do mean a computer, because that’s what these things really are, tiny PC’s that we carry in our pockets every day. But unlike traditional PC’s smartphones are meant to feel more comfortable, playful and leisurely. They’re literally designed for you to not want to leave them behind (which has been the cause for many a smartphone addiction) and from sleek designs, to better storage, to seamless connection with your other devices, smartphones are meant to be the center of your technological world. And not to mention their cameras! Smartphone photography has become the most common form of photography in the world. There’s a higher chance of an image being taken by a phone than any other device on this planet each day. And video isn’t far behind. In fact, smartphone cameras have turned every person on this earth into a potential reporter or source of footage when a significant event occurs, be it a funny wipeout with viral video potential, or a violent incident that abuses human rights. Smartphone cameras have changed the way people express their thoughts and experiences, as we can often just capture them as images or video now, at times elevating that experience for others, while also making social media a potential nightmare for governments that like to cover things up. And smartphone companies have continued to make cameras a key focus point too, with Apple’s iPhones building a whole reputation on having “the best cameras” (even if they don’t) while phones like the Lumia 1020 were saving graces for Windows phone for a time.

Perhaps the key biggest factor about the internet and smartphone design that’s kept them so vital in our lives is also how smartphones are integral to the modern-day person’s social life. Social media itself of course is a key factor in this, but as much as social networks like Facebook and Twitter did exist before smartphones, they only really came into their own once smartphones took off. Social media became an ever-present part of many people’s lives, and that’s because over 50% of what people do online with their phones is social media related. Smartphones took Facebook or Instagram from being passive experiences you logged on to once or twice a day and played on for about thirty minutes, to being active attention-demanding push notifications that always urge you to engage with the app. Whether it’s liking someone’s photo, answering a message, or rushing to see a story before it disappears, social media has become a constant presence on people’s psyche. Think about it this way, ten years ago you probably didn’t care about who liked your photo, what a certain company or individual may say about your tweet or better yet why a certain male or female liked your romantic partner’s photo. And then there’s social media influencers, people who literally can make millions from their phones and bring into question what counts as a celebrity and what doesn’t. People literally have to differentiate between social media and real life these days, and your smartphones are the biggest reasons for that, for better or worse.
Look at them, all waiting to eat up your life
And then there’s streaming, which honestly would not have taken off the way it has without smartphones either. Whether it be video streaming or music streaming, actors, directors, producers and musical artists have adjusted to the fact that their work might not always be watched on a big screen or heard in a perfectly acoustic room, instead they’re watched or heard on the go during a commute or in someone’s bed and this has changed how some of these creatives release and license their content as well.

Mobile payments and other fintech apps have been pushed forward through smartphones as well. With local apps like EcoCash arguably being more convenient through their smartphone apps, while platforms like Venmo have made some strides in countries like the US as well. Even companies like Facebook and Google are trying to get into the mobile payments game, and Apple even released a physical card to go along with its mobile payment app as well. The underrated Samsung pay (which should totally make it’s way to Zim) also allows smartphones to even replace magnetic stripe cards which most  of us use for our bank cards right now, and is essentially just extends your phone’s ability to become your wallet, which is something China’s WeChat has mastered, as you can essentially walk around urban China without needing any cash at all.
This stuff isn’t exactly as mainstream as people would like yet , but it will be soon, and currently the smartphone is it’s backbone.
And finally, there’s all the other products that essentially exist because of smartphones. Accessories like selfie sticks and headphone dongles(argh) come to mind instantly, but the first thing that comes to mind for me is the smartwatch. Seriously, think about it, would smartwatches or fitness trackers be a thing at all if it wasn’t for the smartphone? And what about the tablet? Sure Microsoft might have made the Surface anyway one day but chances are that got fast-tracked because of the iPad, which is still essentially a much larger iPhone, thus owing it’s existence to smartphones as well. And other categories like AR glasses, wireless headphones ,Bluetooth speakers and smart TV operating systems like LG’s WebOS and Samsung’s Tizen, all owe at least part of their inception or popularity from smartphones as well. Even artificial intelligence and machine learning, fields which are supposed to define the next ten years in tech, both owe a lot to smartphones, as digital assistance such as Siri and Alexa are being used as consumer interface testing models and data gathering tools, all while being evolving products in themselves.
So, where to next?
And look, the list could really go on here, I mean I haven’t even talked about how gaming has changed because of smartphones, even at the big console and PC AAA titles (loot boxes anyone?) or how PCs have been affected by smartphones both at a software level( Windows 10 and iPad apps running on MacOS) and at a hardware level ( Windows 10 PCs running on smartphone-based ARM processors) . And how companies like Adobe are bringing key creative suites like Lightroom and Photoshop shows a shift in how creators are making their smartphones key creativity tools in the same way or even differently from their PC’s. And it all comes down to this, even here in Zimbabwe, our lives have all essentially been touched by the smartphone in one way or another, whether we realize it or not. The smartphone was the key vehicle for the internet into many of our lives, and with that came all these new discoveries and possibilities of what technology could do and would do for us both in the present and future. Smartphones have since become a key social tool, status symbol, life planner, mobile video or photo studio, media and information consumption device and a myriad of other uses that we can all never truly quantify unless we could all gather together somehow and say which things we do on our phones. The past decade in tech was crazy, and it changed our whole lives at a fundamental level. And the smartphone led that change, and made us all live different lives from before. There will never be any denying that, and whatever the biggest product of this next decade will be (AR or Digital Assistance perhaps), we’re sure even it will wish it was as impactful as the smartphone.

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