According to Chris Dixon, a partner at the renowned Silicon Valley venture capital firm a16z, there have been three major technology product cycles — the PC era, Internet era, and Mobile era.
"The PC enabled entrepreneurs to create word processors, spreadsheets, and many other desktop applications. The internet enabled search engines, e-commerce, e-mail and messaging, social networking, SaaS business applications, and many other services. Smartphones enabled mobile messaging, mobile social networking, and on-demand services like ride sharing."
Historically, each of these major product cycles began within 10 - 15 years of each other. This means that if history is any indication, the Mobile era — which began in earnest in 2007 with the release of the first iPhone — is peaking, and we are on the precipice of another major tech product cycle.
Historical precedence aside, I think many of us can agree with the fact that even anecdotally, smartphone innovation feels as if it’s reached the point of diminishing returns. How much more productive can the next productivity app really make us? How many different ways can we communicate through chat apps? How many more delivery or ride hailing apps do we need? The smartphone era — while a defining moment for society — has had its time in the sun... at least in its current form.
Nobody can predict what the next tech era will be with 100% certainty. There are simply too many variables — cultural, technological, and economic — to account for.
However, we can look at past trends to try and get some bearing on where we're headed next...
Predicting the next technology era
The PC era provided solutions to individual, utilitarian tasks through software programs like word processors, spreadsheets, and AutoCAD. Then, the Internet era provided solutions to shared, communicatory tasks via search engines, e-mail, and social networking. Last, the Mobile era instantized many of the Internet’s solutions (i.e. mobile messaging, mobile social networking) while also providing a platform for hyperlocal services — Uber, SkipTheDishes, and AirBnb to name just a few.
In other words, human technology has steadily progressed from simplifying tasks to making life more comfortable and convenient.
And the desire for comfort and convenience are two of our most hardwired, biological drives.
The gestation phase for many innovative technologies (i.e. automation, machine learning, AI) could soon be reaching an inflection point, unlocking new ways of enhancing human comfort and convenience. This could change everything from how we use existing technologies (i.e. wearables, smartphones) to how we interact with our environment (augmented reality).
Already, we’re close to being able to use smartwatches to predict health problems, and extended reality (XR) technology to create highly personalized, immersive shopping experiences. Plus, I don’t need to tell anyone reading this how the impacts of 5G could change streaming, XR, delivery, and about a hundred other industries.
Focus on near-term technological opportunities
While there are numerous exciting opportunities on the horizon, it's important that we keep our expectations regarding future tech grounded. Back in 1955, Dr. James Bryant Conant (then President of Harvard University) unsuccessfully predicted that solar energy would be an "inexhaustible source of new power" by the year 2000. But Conant wasn't the only well-educated thinker in his time to make bold claims — there were plenty of academics who thought that 50 years of scientific development would lead to flying cars, space travel, and more.
By maintaining a grasp on what is realistically possible in the near-term, entrepreneurs can create more practical solutions that address the problems of their times.