Over the past few centuries, technology has had a tremendous impact on the world and on people’s lives. You can trace these technological breakthroughs back to the wheel, Gutenberg Pressthen steam engines, locomotion, the cotton gin, the telephone, Edison’s light bulbs, and even the first automobiles introduced in the late 1800s. I saw a statistic recently that the first Wright brothers’ flight and the birth of aviation to the moon landing were about 60 years apart.
The technology of cinema, radio and television has expanded our world, and with the Internet, that world has become both larger and more intimate. Radar and satellites have brought precise navigation to all kinds of applications that have changed our world for the better. And of course the introduction of big iron computing in the late 40’s and 50’s on personal computers in 1972 and then released by Apple in 1977 gave rise to the computer age which impacted the how we learn, work and play today.
These and other technologies should be seen as game changers that have had a significant impact on humanity and society at large.
In this century, the first truly transformational technology that had a dramatic impact on our world was the iPhone. Even though the first smartphones appeared at the end of the last century, the iPhone introduced in 2007 has become a computer in your pocket and has made smartphones an instrument in the way we communicate and interact with information at all times, n anywhere today.
Recently, I was asked, given my 40-year history in technology, what would be the next big leap in technology that will impact our world as much as the iPhone and smartphones.
To answer that question, I said that while most of us didn’t foresee the impact of the iPhone at the start, there were plenty of signs from the late 1990s pointing to smartphones and their impact. potential in the future.
I got my first glimpse of a mobile future when Jeff Hawkins invited me into his office and showed me a production version of the Palm Pilot. Jeff showed me the wooden model of the Palm Pilot that served as the original pilot’s guide for this meeting.
Towards the end of the 1990s, I saw rudimentary smartphone concepts that were refined in 2004 when Palm introduced the Treo 640 smartphone. I was able to test it early and understood that it could be a game changer. Its screen was difficult to read and had many Palm Pilot features that limited what it could do. However, it had a cellular radio and was one of the first commercial smartphones to be released.
Then in 2007, Apple introduced the iPhone with its color touchscreen and easy-to-use interface, and the smartphone era was born. Its growth has been exponential. In 2021, 1.43 billion smartphones were sold worldwide.
These early signs indicated that smartphones would become the next big thing to impact society, and you only have to look at today’s converging technologies to see what the next big thing that will change our world might be.
For me, the next big thing will be fully automated vehicles.
Although I don’t expect to see fully automated level 5 vehicles in wide consumer use before 2030 if then, all the technological signs point in that direction. Today we already have level 1 or assisted driving features in many new car models. And Tesla has introduced Level 2 navigation and some Level 3 navigation to its models, though even those levels of automated driving are still in the early stages of delivering autonomous vehicles.
However, the continued development of dedicated technologies heralds a day when fully automated cars will replace our current vehicles. Advances in smart car processors, advanced 5G radios, sensors, 360-degree cameras, AI explicitly designed for computerized navigation and driving, and many other important software developments are all necessary factors. This transition will be slow, although we may see some critical developments over the next three years that could speed things up. I believe it will be a transition of 25 to 35 years. On the other hand, even early versions of Level 5 self-driving automation will have a revolutionary impact on many people and spread to everyone by mid-century.
Another technology is extremely promising, although I don’t think it will have the same societal impact as self-driving cars. It’s VR-XR and AR. These new technologies that will bring your computer screen directly to your face via VR-AR glasses or headsets will improve the human-machine interface and provide a much more immersive and interactive computing experience for many.
However, I see VR-XR and AR as an evolution of personal computing that will impact many age groups but not be embraced by all. On the other hand, self-driving cars would be a boon for the elderly, whose driving abilities decline with age, and for commuters who want a “chauffeur-driven” driving experience for longer journeys.
It’s always possible that we’ll see another game-changing technology emerge that could deliver significant benefits and become transformative over the next decade. Yet I feel that the next biggest technology impacting most of the world will be rooted in our self-driving cars of the future.