"Phones are the new cars. The car's history suggests that the phone's future is about divergence, not convergence." -- The Economist, December 2, 2006
It looks like the world is finally starting to understand that the future of mobile data is about segmentation rather than finding a single killer app. Because different people want to do different things, it's impossible to make a single mobile device that pleases everyone -- just as you can't make a single automobile that's simultaneously ideal for sports car fans, SUV drivers, and delivery vans.
This is the norm for most product categories. As a new market matures, it divides into segments. I'm not sure why so many people expected the mobile market to converge into a single design. Maybe we were all expecting mobiles to develop the way PCs did. But PCs are starting to look more and more like the exception rather than the rule. For most products, divergence rather than convergence is the dominant reality.
Getting this message across to the mainstream press has taken more than four years. I first started talking about the car market as an analogy for mobile data in mid-2002. For the record, here's a slide I created for PalmSource's main strategy presentation that year:
I'd like to believe that the Economist picked up the idea from me, but it's far more likely that they cooked it up on their own, since it's pretty obvious once you've talked to enough mobile data users.
Once you start thinking about segments in the mobile device market, the next critical question is what the main segments are. The Economist didn't have much insight here. Instead, their article was a very competent overview of all the traditional possibilities -- the "remote control for your life," the "life recorder" (personal video archive), e-wallet, and so on.
The idea they covered that I'm most skeptical about is that in the future we'll all wear glasses on which information about the things we look at will be projected. Living in a nation where more than million people a year pay to have their eyes cut open with a knife and blasted with a laser, all so they won't have to wear glasses, I really doubt that we're all going to start to wear glasses just so we can see hypertext links projected against the walls of restaurants.
To cull the huge list of products that could happen down to a list of things that are more likely to happen, you need to look at users' psychology and what problems they are trying to solve in their lives. I've taken a shot at doing that sort of segmentation in previous posts, and I think they three main segments are mobile entertainment, mobile communication, and mobile information management. You can read the details here.
Who knows, maybe that's what the Economist will be writing about in four more years. ;-)