I’ve been thinking for some time now that the smartphone has achieved a kind of singularity, becoming a black hole that sucks all portable electronics into itself. PDAs – absorbed. Music players – consumed. Handset GPSes – eaten. Travel-alarm clocks, not to mention ordinary watches – subsumed. Calculators – history. E-readers under serious pressure, and surviving only because e-paper displays have lower battery drain and are a bit larger. Compasses – munched. Pocket flashlights – crunched. Fobs for keyless locks – being scarfed down as we speak, though not gone yet.
This raises an interesting question: what else is natural prey for the smartphones of the future? Given my software interests, one low-hanging fruit that seems obvious to me is marine AIS receivers. If the frequency of any of the RF receiver stages in a phone were tunable, writing an app that would pull AIS data out of the air wouldn’t be very difficult. I’ve written a lot of the required code myself, and I know where to find most of the rest.
But in an entertaining inversion, one device of the future actually works on smartphones now. Because I thought it would be funny, I searched for “tricorder” in the Android market. For those of you who have been living in a hole since 1965, a tricorder is a fictional gadget from the Star Trek universe, an all-purpose sensor package carried by planetary survey parties. I expected a geek joke, a fancy mock-up with mildly impressive visuals and no actual function. I was utterly gobsmacked to discover instead that I had an arguably real tricorder in my hand.
Consider. My Nexus One includes a GPS, an accelerometer, a microphone, and a magnetometer. That is, sensors for location, magnetic field, gravitational fields, and acoustic energy. Hook a bit of visualization and spectral analysis to these sensors, and bugger me with a chainsaw if you don’t have a tricorder. A quad- or quintcorder, actually.
And these sensors are already completely stock on smartphones because sensor electronics is like any other kind; amortized over a large enough production run, their incremental cost approaches epsilon because most of their content is actually design information (cue the shade of Bucky Fuller talking about ephemeralization). Which in turn points at the fundamental reason the smartphone is Eater-of-Gadgets; because, as the tricorder app deftly illustrates, the sum of a computer and a bunch of sensors costing epsilon is so synergistically powerful that it can emulate not just real single-purpose gadgets but gadgets that previously existed only as science fiction!
So I think the tunable-RF capability I want for my AIS receiver app won’t be long in coming to a smartphone near me. At which point, of course the smartphone will eat not just AIS receivers but personal radios – and another two segments of the consumer-electronic industry will disappear down the singularity’s maw. But this is a good thing; it’s even, dare I say it, environmentally sound. My cellphone is smaller and lighter than the shelf-full of gadgets it replaces; fewer atoms serving more of my needs means lower impact from manufacturing and less stuff going into landfills.
I specified “personal” radios because radios have something in common with personal computers; their main design constraints are actually constraints on a peripheral stage. For a computer you’ll be using for hours at a time you really want a full-sized hard keyboard and a display bigger than a smartphone’s; for a really good radio, the kind you supply sound for a party with, you need speakers with resonant cavities that won’t fit in a smartphone enclosure.
Digital cameras are another diagnostic case. The low-end camera with small lenses is already looking like a goner; the survivors will be DSLRs and more generally those with precision optics too large and too expensive to fit in a phone case.
These two examples suggest Raymond’s Rule of Smartphone Subsumption: if neither the physics nor the ergonomics of a gadget’s function require peripherals larger than will fit in a smartphone case, the smartphone will eat it!
UPDATE: Added calculators and cameras to the hit list.
UPDATE2: More: Flashlights! Fobs for keyless locks.