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July 02, 2021

Today marks the debut of Signal Boost, a new weekly column I am writing to take a step back and connect the industry's dots or bring a fresh perspective on the view from the Valley. Look for it here every Friday.

Today's newsletter is 1,424 words, or a 5-minute read.

Signal Boost: Your smartphone is breaking up

Illustration of a smartphone split and divided into smaller rectangles
Illustration: Annelise Capossela/Axios

Even before tech firms are ready to ship the devices that will supplant the smartphone, they've begun breaking the phone into pieces.

Why it matters: Tech's giants are scrambling not only to figure out how the future fits together, but to seize turf before new markets solidify.

How it works: Devices worn on the wrist, inside the ear and on the face can together replicate many of the smartphone's key features while allowing users to remain focused on the world around them.

  • You can make calls on an Apple Watch, summon the Google Assistant from Pixel Buds and take pictures from the camera on Snap's Spectacles.

What they're saying: "Lots of little pieces that are in the phone are starting to have a life beyond the phone," said Andrew Bosworth, the longtime Facebook executive who heads Facebook Reality Labs and is working on a number of these devices. "It's happening in plain sight. This isn't a future thing; you can go buy these things today."

Put another way, the phone is good at lots of things. But often it's the device we use because it is the device we have.

  • A camera on your face can actually be a lot less disruptive than reaching for your phone. And a device on the wrist is a lot better for gathering health data than one that is sometimes in your hands, sometimes in a pocket and sometimes in a bag.

The big picture: Augmented reality glasses are widely seen as the next big thing after the smartphone, but it will be years before companies can deliver a headset that anyone would want to wear that can match the power and battery life of a smartphone.

  • In the interim, it makes sense to move some elements, such as display and image capture, to the glasses, while relying on devices elsewhere for additional computing power, display and input.

Between the lines: There's also a big business incentive for companies like Facebook, Amazon and Microsoft to want to move beyond the phone era: Apple and Google control the phone through their operating systems and app stores, limiting what other companies can do.

  • "It's the nature of any company to try to not be entirely at the mercy of other competitors," Bosworth said.

Yes, but: The smartphone isn't going away. The laptop computer didn't make the desktop vanish, and the phone didn't do away with the laptop.

  • The smartphone itself can be a powerful aid to these other devices, offering its greater computing power and battery life to send data to other devices on the body.

The bottom line: Tech is a game of bundle, unbundle, repeat.

  • The smartphone became what it is by combining the functions of a host of other devices — telephone, camera, web browser, handheld games, music player — into one package.
  • Now that process is moving in reverse.

2. How the wearable hardware battle is shaping up

The fight for the next generation of hardware has already begun, and nearly all the tech giants are taking part.

Why it matters: All the firms that were successful with the phone want a place in what comes next. So do all the companies who came up short in mobile. That's a lot of companies.

Here's a look at the three most critical new categories, with some of their pros and cons, and a look at the competitive landscape so far.

The wrist

Pros: There's room for a decent size screen, direct access to measure things like heart rate and a history of people wearing devices there.

Cons: Just shrinking phone apps to fit the tiny screen isn't very satisfying, and figuring out the best means of input remains tricky.

Leader so far: Apple Watch.

In the mix: Google has struggled, but the addition of Fitbit gives it another chance. Samsung, meanwhile, stands to benefit from its partnership with Google. Facebook is also working on products in this space.

The ear

Pros: It's a natural spot for a speaker and a pretty good place for microphones, and people are used to putting things in their ears.

Cons: There's very little space for a battery or processor, so computing work will have to be done by a nearby device.

Leader so far: Apple AirPods.

In the mix: Everyone else has their own buds, including Samsung, Google, Amazon and Microsoft.

The eyes

Pros: There are different ways to serve up a display from smart contact lenses to lightweight goggles to full headsets.

Cons: Glasses are a familiar accessory, but they have also set an expectation that anything placed there will be lightweight and fashionable. That means today's devices are either underpowered or too bulky for the masses.

Leader so far: It's still a wide open field.

In the mix: On the lightweight side, Snap has been experimenting with Spectacles for some time. On the bulky but powerful front, Microsoft's Hololens has won military and business deals. Google has been reeling since its early setbacks with Glass, but it continues to invest, while Facebook plans to start testing its own smart glasses later this year.

3. Social networks face identity crisis

Illustration of a phone as a standing mirror.
Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Tech giants are scrambling to figure out how to stay competitive in a world that's now dominated by dozens of social networking apps, all catering to different interests, Axios' Sara Fischer reports.

Driving the news: Instagram CEO Adam Mosseri said Thursday the app — long known as a venue for people to share filtered photos — is "no longer just a square photo-sharing app."

The focus moving forward will be on new features for creators, video, shopping and messaging, he said. "The No. 1 reason people say they use Instagram is to be entertained."

Meanwhile, TikTok on Thursday said it will roll out the option to create longer videos — up to three minutes — in the coming weeks, an effort that will likely help the platform compete with YouTube.

While TikTok chases YouTube, the latter just rolled out its TikTok competitor "Shorts" in the U.S. Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, Reddit and others have all experimented with TikTok challenges over the past few months.

  • Facebook and Twitter have both launched live audio and newsletter products this year that compete with Substack and Clubhouse.
  • Twitter is testing a feature similar to Instagram's "close friends" option which allows users to share posts only with select followers.
  • Facebook is also testing a NextDoor knock-off and Spotify is now eyeing live events.

What to watch: As social networks continue growing, they run the risk of overwhelming consumers and losing what made them special and distinct to begin with.

4. Programs that write programs

Illustration of an infinite, recursive tunnel of laptops.
Illustration: Shoshana Gordon/Axios

A new AI tool can work with human programmers to generate new code that finishes the job of writing a program, Axios' Bryan Walsh reports.

Why it matters: The tool can help take some of the scutwork of programming off human experts' hands, leaving them freer to focus on the more creative parts of their jobs. But it also opens the door to a world in which programs could one day fully write programs, which may be bad news for some of the humans that currently do it.

What's happening: Called Copilot, the new tool was launched this week by Microsoft, the collaborative coding platform Github and OpenAI, a machine-learning company that developed the text-generating model GPT-3.

  • GPT-3 is a natural-language model trained on a massive quantity of text, which it can use to predict the relationship among words and sentences, allowing it to generate astoundingly convincing text when given a prompt.
  • Copilot was built on a algorithm called OpenAI Codex that works like GPT-3, but for computer code instead of human language.

How it works: Codex was trained on terabytes of openly available code pulled from Github, and uses that training to recommend code for software developers to use as they program.

  • Copilot can look at code that has been written as well as the location of the cursor and offer up new lines to add.
  • As the human programmer accepts or rejects those recommendations, Copilot can improve itself over time.

5. Take note

On Tap

  • It's a three-day weekend, including for Login. We'll be back Tuesday. Happy Independence Day.


  • Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a law requiring companies with more than 500,000 users in Russia to set up an office in the country. (Reuters)
  • Jason Miller, a former aide to President Trump, is launching a new social app called Gettr. (Axios)
  • Brokerage app Robinhood said it would set aside 20–35% of shares in its IPO for its customers. (Axios)

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