Commentary: Can't imagine a world without iPhones and Android? Maybe you're not trying hard enough.
Brian CooleyEditor at Large
Brian Cooley is CNET's Editor at large and has been with the brand since 1995. He currently focuses on electrification of vehicles but also follows the big trends in smart home, digital healthcare, 5G, the future of food, and augmented & virtual realities. Cooley is a sought after presenter by brands and their agencies when they want to understand how consumers react to new technologies. He has been a regular featured speaker at CES, Cannes Lions, Advertising Week and The PHM HealthFront™. He was born and raised in Silicon Valley when Apple's campus was mostly apricots.
ExpertiseAutomotive technology, smart home, digital health.Credentials
One of those people is
CEO Randall Stephenson. "We carry around these devices and they're bigger than they should be... I say they go away," Stephenson recently said to the Economic Club of Washington, DC. "It is conceivable that we're going to be moving into a world without screens, a world where [glasses are] your screen. You don't need any more form factor than [that]."
The CEO of the second largest carrier in the US is certainly an unlikely source for such a controversial position. If anything, Apple's launch of Apple Card, a credit card you can't use without an iPhone highlights that we live in a phone-centric world. And Stephenson himself is on thin ice when it comes to 5G. Remember, it's AT&T that began a firefight among the mobile carriers by rushing to market 5G E, or 5G Evolution, which rival carriers deride as slow, "fake 5G".
Stephenson's comments are meant to promote the power and ubiquity of 5G networks coming from his industry, promising to move storage and computing out of phones and onto the network.
But AT&T's chief also shines a light on the dirty little secret of all phones on all networks: They're a crutch. They're the lightest crutch we've been able to devise to access media, communications, information and navigation, but still a crutch. They both enable media experiences and sit in the way of them.
Eliminating the phone sounds nuts today, but the phone itself sounded crazy 20 years ago: An expensive, bulky, fragile, easy-to-lose device that takes up the one empty pocket or free hand you have left and litters your consciousness with charge anxiety.
But along came the
, in 2002, and the tradeoff made sense. The iPhone arrived five years later with a full touchscreen and apps universe to cement the trend. Can head-up displays and augmented reality virtualize all of that as Stephenson envisions? Yes and no.
But AR is the linchpin to a phoneless vision. For example, Magic Leap AR headsets are starting to show up in AT&T stores as part of a partnership between the two companies, though the headsets don't operate on a cellular network.
Yet, AR suffers from consumer malaise similar to that around VR: We don't see a compelling reason to wear tech on our faces. Comfort and vanity, two huge drivers of consumer decisions, are standing in the way.
The last successful breakthrough in tech worn on our face was in 1784, when Ben Franklin invented bifocals. Since then we've been on an odyssey to get visual tech off of our faces. Most of us hate wearing glasses so much that we'll stick plastic discs in our eyes or pay someone to aim a hot laser at them.
Then there's reliability: 5G is credibly expected to be far more reliable than 4G (after a multiyear maturation process) but it will always be less reliable than something stored on a solid-state device you carry. 5G network failures may be few, but that same robustness may move our relationship with a network from reliance to entitlement, instantly exhausting our patience when we do encounter a slow or dead spot.
Today's online experiences like Spotify or
cache a lot of data on your device in case their connection is lost, and you often don't even know it's happening. A phoneless future of light, slim glasses may not offer a spacious, powerful place for a cache to live.
When people ask me what replaces the phone, I tell them nothing does in the next handful of years, but something does after that. The benefits of an immersive interface overlaid on the world around us, with voice, gesture and gaze driving it, are too powerful to deny. But our comfort, vanity and impatience -- not electronics -- are the main hurdles.
Originally published March 24, 2019. Update, March 27, 28, 30: Adds more detail.