Jun 14, 2019

Axios Future

By Bryan Walsh
Bryan Walsh

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Today's Smart Brevity count: 1,147 words, ~5 minute read.

Okay, let's start with ...

1 big thing: The smartphone debate

Illustration: Rebecca Zisser/Axios

Just 12 years after the first iPhone, almost every conceivable smartphone consumer on the planet currently owns one — some 4 billion people, according to the consensus.

  • Which has begotten a surprising new trend: a still-small but growing chorus of forecasts (like this) of the smartphone’s demise.

What’s happening: According to the smartphone naysayers, it might look like we are bionically tethered to our devices, but we are actually poised to shed our reliance on them, one function after another. We will turn to our cars to make phone calls, send and receive texts, and get directions, they say, and to wearables and our home smart assistants to do those tasks, make payments, and stay on schedule.

The big picture: It is always hard to picture a dramatic change in our accustomed lifestyle, and that can be especially so with technology. The horse-riding populace of the late 19th century did not imagine the automobile revolution only shortly to come. And, more recent and pertinent, very few if any people predicted as late as 2006 that, beginning just a year later, they would gladly fork over $750 for a phone.

  • In interviews, tech analysts, investors and professors told us that we are at peak smartphone because of market saturation, and that the device as we precisely know and use it may in fact be soon old hat.
  • But there is deep skepticism that we are anywhere near giving them up entirely. “While some will call for [the smartphone’s] demise over time, we do not see that even with binoculars on looking ahead,” said Dan Ives, managing director of equity research at Wedbush.

In a May blog post, Benedict Evans, a partner at Andreesen Horowitz, said that smartphones are at the peak of the tech cycle now. “I’m not updating my smartphone model anymore,” he wrote. In an email, he suggested that we are in a long, technological interregnum — headed toward wearables and augmented reality, but meanwhile without "a replacement [for the smartphone] yet.”

One might rightly ask why massive numbers of people would give up the hub that their smartphone represents — for many, the center of their lives — in exchange for a half dozen or a more devices that do the same thing separately.

  • “Even when the world around us will be full of sensors and every device will be connected – which will take considerable time — I still wonder if a single device will have to be a constant,” said Carolina Milanesi, an analyst with Creative Strategies.

Whatever happens, smartphones will change:

  • They will morph into devices with better connectivity, computing, and display technologies, says Prabal Dutta, a professor at the University of Michigan.
  • From there, they will become the dominant AR interface in non-gaming and non-industrial applications, he says.
  • “One day we'll have audio interfaces implanted next to our ears and ways to send thoughts through direct brain interfaces," said James Cham, a partner with Bloomberg Beta, the venture capital firm.

Bottom line: We need to be prepared to be technologically blindsided. “But the value of being connected won't become obsolete," said John Villasenor, a professor at UCLA. "That means that, for the near-term future, we will still need to have some sort of device with us, even if it looks different and functions differently from what we have today.”

2. Navigating the Huawei brouhaha

Photo: Zhang Hengwei/China News Service/VCG/Getty

As China’s Huawei fights for survival in its current form, its U.S. security chief says a reasonable inspection regime could swiftly ease any doubts about whether the company’s equipment is vulnerable to Chinese espionage, writes Axios’ Ina Fried.

What’s happening: The remarks by Andy Purdy are the latest in the company’s attempt to navigate the Trump administration’s offensive against Huawei amid the 17-month-old trade war. The U.S. has all-but banned Huawei equipment in the U.S., and appealed to allies around the world to do the same, calling the company a security threat.

  • The U.K. and, soon, Germany are attempting to screen such equipment for vulnerabilities rather than outright banning them. And Purdy suggests that a middle ground is possible with the U.S., too.
  • "There are ways to test products for back doors," said Purdy, who was an assistant U.S. attorney and acting director of the U.S. national cybersecurity division before joining Huawei in 2012.
  • And wireless carriers, not network equipment vendors, ensure that their data is under control.

But Axios cybersecurity reporter Joe Uchill says the technical reality is more complex than Purdy suggests. “No person who works in cybersecurity believes any product is 100% secure under any circumstances, even when it's designed to be secure,” Joe said.

The bottom line, from Ina: “The Huawei issue is a particularly challenging one to sort out. To hear Huawei talk about it there is nothing to worry about it while US officials make it sound like using their gear is like handing all your network data to the Chinese government. The truth is of course likely somewhere in the middle.”

3. What you may have missed

Photo: Arne Dedert/picture alliance/Getty

Sometimes we can get sidetracked. Never mind, here is the week at Future:

1. The craft chocolate revolution: The new haut cool

2. Big Tech's timid deepfakes defense: Platforms need to do more

3. The twin reckonings: The techlash and the trade war are on a collision course

4. AI-infused surveillance: Those cameras come alive

4. Worthy of your time

Photo: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

U.S. privacy law is incomprehensible (Kevin Litman-Navarro - NYT)

California could upend the gig economy (Kia Kokalitcheva - Axios)

Killing the doorbell (Pooja Salhotra - Buzz Magazines)

Regulating Big Tech short of breakup (Angela Chen - MIT Tech Review)

Big, invisible animal migrations (Carl Zimmer - NYT)

5. 1 climate thing: Move to Russia, not Mars

Photo: Costfoto/Barcroft/Getty

Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos wants us to colonize Mars — a backup planet for when ours goes up in flames, Kaveh writes.

But before the Earth becomes uninhabitable, there are a number of not-so-hot spots that scientists expect will still sustain humans, Elia Kabanov writes in Grist.

  • Think of the coldest place people live today …
  • Did you guess Siberia? Researchers at NASA and Russia's Krasnoyarsk Research Center expect it to support as many as 9 times more people — "opening the way for a surge of climate migrants," Kabanov writes.

The scientists imagined two scenarios — a relatively mild average temperature increase of 6.12º Fahrenheit, and a more extreme 16.38º increase.

The result, according to Kabanov: "In both scenarios, Siberian climate would be much warmer and milder by the 2080s. The permafrost zone would shift significantly to the northeast. Life conditions and the ability to live in Asian Russia would improve, allowing 3 to 9 times the current capacity."

Our thought bubble from Axios' Andrew Freedman: Things won't be paradisiacal in future Siberia. Already, forest fires are increasingly common, and melting permafrost is harming infrastructure, making building a challenge.

Bryan Walsh