The New Frontier: Looking for the Next Big Thing in All The Wrong Places

(Fair warning, these are my thoughts about wearables like smartwatches and Google Glass. They come from my blog, if you're interested in supporting an independently run website.


Consumer technology has a problem. It’s an issue that’s been brewing for years, a natural consequence of time and success.

Everyone is looking for the next big thing, but no one can seem to find it. Companies would like you to believe that wearable technology is the new frontier, while others will argue that it is converging laptop-tablet hybrids, and some would like you to believe that your TV can be smarter. But these are all manufactured solutions to problems that don’t need to exist.

The proverbial well is running dry, and companies are scrambling to find what’s next.

The Reactionary Age

It started with the iPhone in 2007, when Steve Jobs introduced the iPhone. The idea of a smartphone was revolutionary, a tool that could solve actual problems. A touchscreen smartphone could utilize the internet and apps to allow information to be accessed beyond a heavy desktop PC. It was a major breakthrough, a solution to broaden access for the booming internet age.

And as with every major product, the technology industry reacted. Android, Windows Phone, and Blackberry powered a reactionary age of evolving smartphone technology. Better processers, bigger screens, faster cellular technology ensued. It was necessary evolution- the iPhone was far from perfect with generation one- but it was reactionary all the same. And now in 2014, seven years after the iPhone’s introduction, the consumer technology industry is left pondering a question: what’s next?

The consumer technology market has become saturated. Tablets and smartphones have been released by nearly every manufacturer imaginable, and diminishing returns are begging to surface. Sure, there will always be first-time smartphone owners, or the people who buy the latest iPhone; Apple’s latest profits led credence to this statement. But the industry can only go so far with this age of devices before the market dries up.

To their credit, many companies realize this fact. After all, why would Samsung and Apple be so diligently working on building smartwatches? Why is Google manufacturing Google Glass? These products represent their ideas about the new frontier. They seek the cutting edge of markets to stake out and exploit, a quest to ensure a brand new generation of "gotta have it" technology. But in desperately seeking a market that doesn’t exist, consumer technology has changed. What once was an industry that solved problems has become one that makes distractions.

Critics will claim that this has always been the case- people often greet new technology with dismissive claims. "Who needs internet on their phone?" "Who could possibly want a five inch phone?" "Why would anyone buy a tablet?" These were all valid complaints, but eventually marketing overruled pragmatism, and people bought giant smartphones and tablets in droves. The market diversified, but variations on the central idea of mobile computing can only go so far.

We’re at the precipice of a new era of wearable consumer technology. And naturally, critics have arisen to critique smartwatches and geeky eyewear. "Why would I need a smartwatch? I already have a smartphone." And while previously, marketing may have overruled any dissent, there is reason to believe that this era won’t be the same. Smartwatches and Google Glass are solutions to problems that don’t exist, and people have the right to question why they absolutely need a wearable device. Wearable technology is a distraction, a variation on the same concept of mobile computing that began with the iPhone. And of course, some people will buy them to be on the cutting edge. But whereas the iPhone began solving a problem, wearables are merely creating a distraction.

The same could be said about the other new markets- for example, smart televisions. While smart tv’s have existed for quite a while, they have yet to truly catch on with the public, despite Google’s best efforts. The clamors for a true Apple TV have existed for quite a while, but the problem with wearables parallels that of smart televisions: what problem is this solving? No one absolutely needs to access the internet on their TV, because access to information is already available to smartphones, tablets, and laptops. In seeking the new frontier, these companies have filled specific niches that don’t translate to broad appeal. People are happy with their "dumb tv’s," a descriptor that doesn’t match the reality of the situation.

It’s easy to say that these markets will falter, but it is harder to say what the new illusive technology market will be. If not wearables or smart televisions, then what is the "new frontier?"

The answer may not be so simple. Consumer technology may not find the next revolutionary product that will change everything and will entrench companies for the next decade. But there is still room for pragmatic solutions to common household problems. The fundamental difference is finding solutions.

Nest’s home automation devices are the biggest example. Many households have been stuck with thermostats that don’t effectively adapt to their environment, leading to overpriced energy bills and lost money. Nest is a solution to these issues, a challenger to a dominance by old-school energy thermostats companies. Home automation does not constitute the zest and the "sex-appeal" of a smartwatch, but its pragmatism and utility is more appealing than another screen to display notifications from your other screen.

Obviously, home automation is just one example, but there are other problems to be solved. Without listing a whole catalogue of issues, there is a whole market of pragmatic and updated machinery that consumers use every day. Instead of forging new markets, refinement can help solve problems that have existed for far too long. Profit is profit, with or without glamor of a product like the iPhone.

It’s time the priorities of the consumer technology industry are realigned with reality, where solutions to real problems are more important than new distractions. Whether the industry will learn the lesson is another question that is yet to be seen. One thing’s for sure: the next big thing isn’t here yet.