Smart Benedict Evans on mobiles, smartphones and hindsight

I thought this was very enjoyable and perceptive from Benedict Evans last week – “Mobile, smartphones and hindsight” – and not just because it includes some glorious photos of mobile devices over the last 15 years.

Ben argues that you could never have predicted the shape of the mobile and smartphone universe we live in today from where it started out in 2001.

So many people missed the significance of the launch of the iPhone. “This isn’t a very well-featured phone” they argued, not spotting that their current phones weren’t very well-featured for the open internet.

“Today, one can date ‘mobile’ to before iPhone and after iPhone. But the interesting thing, looking back, is that before the iPhone, it didn’t really feel like we were desperately in need of some catalytic event. As a professor at university once told me, ‘people in the ‘Middle Ages’ didn’t know they were living in the ‘Middle Ages’’. It felt like we were making steady progress. It wasn’t clear at all that we were waiting for a new class of device, with a new approach, that would transform the mobile internet from a segment of telco revenue into a near-universal experience that would become the main part of the internet itself.”

There’s also some lovely looks of many of the mis-steps along the way – things that looked like they could be the future, but weren’t.

It was a decent reminder that I spent a wonderful six months in Salzburg designing mobile music services for Sony at a time where there simply wasn’t the data bandwidth knocking around cheaply enough for streaming music to be a viable proposition. It clearly was the future – just not in that locked-in music label provides software uniquely to one telco model.

Benedict concludes that:

“It’s always fun to laugh at the people who said the future would never happen. But it’s more useful to look at the people who got it almost right, but not quite enough. That’s what happened in mobile. As we look now at new emerging industries, such as VR and AR or autonomous cars, we can see many of the same issues. The big picture 20 years out is actually the easy part, but the details are the difference between Nokia and DoCoMo ruling the world and the world as it actually happened. There’s going to be a bunch of stuff that’ll happen by 2025 that we’d find just as weird.”

Well worth reading his post in full.