The Battle Lines in Tech are Being Redrawn

The competitive tech landscape is changing. Some companies with proven track records in mobile will struggle while new players are poised to find success. The battle for our attention is broadening into a massive land grab for the most valuable real estate in our lives. Unlike the usual refrain found with new technologies, this new era is already upon us. In fact, it began years ago.

Old Landscape

This week marks the 10th anniversary of Apple unveiling the iPhone. While many looked at that original iPhone as just a smarter smartphone, the device set off a revolution that is still unfolding today. The iPhone kicked off two battles; one has been settled while the other is still going strong.

Contrary to popular belief, the iPhone's most formidable competitor was never Google and its Android operating system. Instead, the iPhone's success was dependent on a smartphone being able to gain power and value in a sea of laptops and desktops. Apple saw this battle coming from a mile away. Here's Steve Jobs explaining why Apple decided to use OS X to power the iPhone:

"[S]oftware on mobile phones is like baby software. It's not so powerful, and today we are going to show you a software breakthrough. Software that's at least five years ahead of what's on any other phone. Now how do we do this? Well, we start with a strong foundation: iPhone runs OS X. [big round of applause from audience] Now, why would we want to run such a sophisticated operating system on a mobile device? Well, because it's got everything we need. It's got multi-tasking. It's got the best networking. It already knows how to power manage. We've been doing this on mobile computers for years. It's got awesome security. And the right apps. It's got everything from Cocoa and the graphics, and it's got core animation built in, and it's got the audio and video that OS X is famous for. It's got all the stuff we want. And it's built right into iPhone."

Apple knew in the mid-2000s that smartphones would become more than just smart phones. It took some of Apple's competitors years to come to this realization. The smartphone not only became much smarter, but also turned into the most valuable computer in our lives. While there is still a place for laptops, desktops, and of course tablets, the smartphone's value proposition no longer needs to be explained. That battle is over. 

However, the other battle kicked off by the iPhone is still ongoing and involves how we use our smartphones. Every company from Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and Snap to Netflix and Spotify are competing against each other. All of these companies are chasing our time and attention. Time spent watching video on Facebook is time not spent watching original content on Netflix. Sharing photos on Instagram takes time away from sharing photos on Snapchat. We have a finite amount of time each day available to give to these companies. At stake is not just relevancy but all of the advertising and content dollars that are found with relevancy.

The Winners

Thanks to geographical limitations, this battle for our attention has produced two big winners:

  • Facebook (1.1 billion mobile daily active users)
  • WeChat (800 million daily active users)

Facebook and WeChat share much in common as they aren't just social networks or messaging platforms but instead curated versions of the web. There is then a long list of secondary players, including some Facebook-owned properties like Instagram and WhatsApp. Others like Snapchat and Twitter are struggling to match Facebook's users numbers but still have more than 100 million daily active users. These companies are battling each other for the advertising leftovers. 

Another big winner in the fight for our attention has been Apple. In a battle between Facebook and Twitter, Apple wins as the iPhone is the common denominator. The same can be said for competition between Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Video, and YouTube. This is one reason why Apple has been so complementary over the years to Facebook, Netflix, WeChat, Twitter, Uber and pretty much every other major iOS partner. It is in Apple's best interest for there to be a vicious fight for our attention when using iPhones as the more disjointed our attention is among various apps and messaging platforms, the more power falls to the device itself. Of course, Apple wouldn't mind if we spent time using their own dedicated apps, content, and services. Judging by Apple's profit share in the smartphone industry and cumulative iPhone unit sales, competition for our attention when using iPhones has resulted in very good business for Apple over the years. 

Exhibit 1: iPhone Unit Sales (Cumulative) 

In the extreme case of consumers giving most of their attention to a single company like WeChat in China, Apple still has a built-in advantage of being the company responsible for not just crucial components like the screen, processor, and fingerprint sensor, but also the camera and overall design of the phone. Bear case scenarios involving iPhone sales drying up in China due to WeChat grabbing so much power haven't panned out. Last month, WeChat reported that half of its users spend 90 minutes on one its properties every day. This means that attention is still being shared among a handful of mobile properties.  

New Landscape

Change is in the air. While the fight for our attention and relevancy is not over, advancements in hardware and data collection are leading to tech battle lines being redrawn. While the smartphone is the most valuable computer in our lives today, a new crop of devices are popping up. A land grab is unfolding as companies go after the most valuable real estate in our lives: our cars, homes, and even bodies. 

 
 

There are three key variables guiding this redrawn competitive map:

  1. Monitoring. Simply grabbing our attention while we use hand-held computers is no longer enough. Instead, value has begun to flow to devices and software that can monitor significant portions of our day. The end goal is capturing more of our data. 
  2. Intelligence. As devices collect a growing amount of our data, there will be a stronger need for these devices to learn from this data and then provide feedback to the user. Buzzwords like "machine learning" and "artificial intelligence" are now paraded around to describe this variable. In reality, a much simpler way of describing this trend is that computers will have to become smarter. 
  3. Personalization. In what may be the most underappreciated trend in tech today, new manufacturing techniques are allowing hardware personalization like we have never seen before. This will become critical as the line between technology and fashion becomes blurry. 

New Battleground

The best way of mapping this new competitive landscape is to look at the new battleground. 

Body. While smartphones continue to gain value in our lives, the form factor doesn't lend itself to being a great monitoring device. As software continues to invade the healthcare industry, the need for biometrics monitoring will increase. Advancements in terms of what can be captured using noninvasive sensors have already led to a new range of small computers that can be worn throughout the day and night. 

Automobile. We have been using boxes on wheels to get us from Point A to Point B for the past 100 years. The extent to which these boxes can be customized after purchase has involved folding down a seat or two. In addition, car utilization associated with car ownership is abysmal. The combination of electric powertrains, ridesharing, and autonomous driving represent the change that is needed for massive innovation to occur in the auto industry. Once these technologies and services become a reality (we are still waiting for autonomous driving), new design and manufacturing ideas will render boxes on wheels into smart rooms on wheels. This will have major implications not only on how we travel, but also on what takes place inside automobiles. 

Home. The smart home has been forecasted for decades. Ironically, much of what is now taking place in the category isn't too different from the utopian picture of us talking to our appliances. We are currently seeing a wave of what will likely turn out to be transitory products in the form of stand-alone microphones and speakers, such as Amazon Echo and Google Home, that use voice assistants to control what is still a very manageable number of smart home items. Over time, as the number of smart home items increase, new control methods and interfaces will need to be developed. 

Key Considerations

If the new tech battleground is expanding to the body, home, and car, each one of those realms seems to be a logical area for voice to gain quite a bit of power. At the same time, there are ongoing questions as to the role screens and cameras will hold in our lives. 

Voice. The current buzzword in tech is voice. The major theme from this year's CES dealt with hardware companies announcing their support for Amazon's voice assistant, Alexa. The plan is to put Alexa in anything that contains a microphone and speaker. Everything from large-screen TVs to cars is on the table. This has led to a narrative centering on "voice first" and "voice only" interfaces. Instead of relying on screens to gather and consume data, we will instead simply talk to a digital assistant using microphones worn on our bodies or situated throughout our homes and cars. In a world without screens, the tech landscape would be turned on its head. 

There are a number of glaring issues with the idea of voice as an interface. The biggest problem is that voice is simply not a great conduit for sharing and consuming large amounts of data. A simple weather query demonstrates this limitation. While a quick question about the current temperature to Alexa or Siri will lead to a straightforward answer, it becomes much harder to rely on voice to get the forecasted hourly temperature change throughout the day. This information can be easily consumed via a screen in a few seconds. Another example is found with consuming news. Using voice to stay informed of current news, also known as radio, will produce an experience inferior to a quick swipe through one's Twitter timeline or Facebook news feed.

Many are using voice in 2017 in a very transitory way, as a stepping-stone to something much more sustainable and valuable. No wonder one of the most popular uses for Amazon Echo is setting kitchen timers - something easily done with a smartphone. 

Instead of voice replacing our screens or becoming the only way we interact with our computers, voice will become a way we interact with our proactive assistant. However, the smarter this assistant becomes, the less talking will take place.

  • Why ask about the weather when a proactive assistant will know the best time to feed us the information we want to know?
  • Why ask about the day's top news when a proactive assistant can curate and then deliver stories to our nearest screen when it thinks it is the most convenient time?
  • Why use voice to turn on or off our smart home devices when home automation is a much better alternative?

The smarter a computer becomes, the less we should need to talk with that computer. The future of voice will include a whole lot more listening than talking. 

Screens. A bet that screens will retain value in the future will likely end up being a very good bet. Screens provide something that voice will never be able to offer: a visual window into the world. While the look and feel of screens as well as how we use screens in our lives will change, we will continue to use screens for a very long time to consume images, video, and even text. 

Cameras. One of the biggest revolutions to take place during the smartphone era has involved the camera. There is a very high likelihood that the camera found in your current smartphone is the best camera you have ever owned in your life. This has produced a situation in which photos and video are no longer just about memory capture. They have become a primary form of communication. Instead of voice wiping this medium away, there is a much higher likelihood that additional cameras and screens will enter our lives. Cameras will be the smart eyes that make self-driving cars possible. Cameras will make it possible for augmented reality to be consumed on our iPhones. Cameras will begin to be found in many devices, some of which will come as a surprise. 

Apple's Roadmap

Apple has done extremely well in the current tech landscape. The company has sold more than a billion iPhones and grew its iPhone installed base by a hundred million users in 2015 and 2016. Since unveiling the iPhone, Apple's stock price is up 800%. As the competitive maps are redrawn, Apple will face new opportunities and challenges. New competitors are going to enter the arena while surprising partnerships will likely jolt the space. 

Body. Apple's best chance of success will be found with the body. Apple excels at creating devices that require a deep integration of breakthrough hardware design and software. Wearables closely fit the bill. In addition, the manufacturing experience Apple has spent more than a decade building will help the company tremendously when it comes to producing increasingly smaller and more personal devices that fit into our lives. Apple is already on track to sell 30M wearable devices this year when combining Apple Watch and AirPods sales. In addition, Apple's stance on privacy has the potential to become a much more important topic in a world where devices are monitoring and collecting an increasing amount of our data, including sensitive biometric data. 

When it comes to competition for the body, Nike and Under Armour should not be ignored. While Nike was correct in getting out of the wrist wearables space years ago, the environment is going to change as the gap between technology and fashion shrinks. Nike's adaptive lacing technology may seem like a gimmick today, but it is a sign of Nike embracing technology in a much more direct way. We already see Nike and Apple partner with Apple Watch Nike+. This will likely grow into a much broader partnership between Apple and Nike that spans a number of products. Meanwhile, the legacy watch and fashion industries are going to face extinction-level competition.

The other realm of competition will come from the same companies currently competing for our attention on smartphones. Spectacles are the beginning of a much broader push by Snap that will eventually lead to the company selling augmented reality glasses. Facebook has indicated similar interest in placing screens on our faces. These devices will represent a prime example of how screens and cameras will continue to a play a pivotal role in our lives for a very long time. Will Apple be able to recreate the iOS platform for glasses? The company benefits from the fight for our attention on smartphones, and creating an environment in which there is a new battle in front of our eyes may be even more attractive. (Jony Ive and the rest of Apple's Industrial Design group are going to first need to solve the many issues found with wearing computers on the face.)

Automobile. When it comes to rethinking the car, some of the major themes found in the smartphone market are going to reappear. Today's cars are boxes on wheels. Tomorrow's cars are going to be smart rooms on wheels. There may be an opportunity for the car industry to experience its very own "iPhone" moment. Tesla's current offerings don't represent this earth-shaking change. 

As it does with the smartphone industry, value is going to flow to the companies that control both auto hardware and software. Autonomous driving and the machine learning powering these cars will require both significant hardware and software advancements. In addition, passenger compartments are going to become prime real estate for lots of data consumption (music, video, etc.). The fact that these smart rooms on wheels will be surrounded by lots of screens (i.e. windows and windshields) should give us clues as to how important augmented reality will become in the auto space. 

Apple has many of the ingredients to go very far in the car industry although the company is also missing some crucial technologies. My suspicion is that Project Titan's change in strategy is geared to first fill some of these technology gaps before proceeding with automobile hardware. Meanwhile, ridesharing and different ownership models will increase a car's utilization rate by almost 20x. This will have a major impact on the cost of travel. However, at the end of the day, design and manufacturing will be the two most important variables to watch in the auto space - two of Apple's biggest strengths. There is simply too much at stake for Apple (or any major tech company for that matter) to not have a comprehensive strategy for the automobile as cars turn into smart rooms on wheels.

Home. This is where Apple has the least attractive position. Given Apple's culture and functional organizational structure, one should not expect Apple to move down the path of selling various smart devices for the home. Selling niche hardware that will be owned for long periods of time without upgrading doesn't exactly sound too attractive of a business for a hardware maker either. Apple's answer to get around the lack of Apple-branded hardware is HomeKit and the Home app: Rely on third-party device manufacturers to come up with smart devices that can be controlled via iOS and Siri.

On paper, the strategy makes sense. Unfortunately, reality is quite a bit different. Expecting consumers to go out and buy lots of smart home devices at prices that are in some cases 10x more than those of their non-smart alternatives doesn't bode well for the smart home going mainstream any time soon. This is why Apple expects this process to proceed gradually, with consumers buying a few smart items in the beginning and then slowly building their collections over time. This is why predictions of Amazon and "voice only" interfaces ruling the home seem immature. It is simply way too early. When it comes to the home, value is going to eventually flow to automation, an element that Apple seems to be betting big on with its Home app. However, the hardware piece of the equation just isn't there. 

The TV industry remains a mess with no clear winner when it comes to video streaming, and the home may end up in a similar state. In some ways, Apple's Home app is similar to its TV app. Both strategies contain holes. 

After the iPhone

Everyone wants to know what will come after the iPhone. This is likely the wrong way of thinking about the future tech landscape. The new tech battle lines being redrawn don't assume there will be a "new iPhone." The iPhone will likely remain a very valuable device in our lives for many years, and companies are still going to be fighting for our attention when using smartphones. However, value has begun to flow to those companies able to place hardware and software in the most important parts of our lives: our bodies, cars, and homes.

The unknown found in this new competitive landscape concerns just how much autonomy these new devices will have. (Hint: It's much more than people think.) Instead of seeing wearables remain as iPhone accessories, we are going to see smartwatches, wireless headphones, and maybe even smart glasses gain independency. Instead of cars being controlled by our iPhone, cars will become like our iPhones.

The iPhone has had a major impact on society because it redefined a computer. For the first time, we had a computer that could fit in our pocket. We are quickly moving to the point of having many new computers on our bodies, on our roads, and in our homes.

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