The product of the decade changed us and hints at where fortunes will be made in the 2020s

One product defined the 2010s. It changed us as humans, its impact upon us is hard to overstate. Investors who recognised this made a fortune, yet its impact upon the economy was negligible. Prepare for the equivalent products of the 2030s.

Article updated: 2 January 2020 1:00pm Author: Michael Baxter

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I am not exactly sure when it was when I fell in love for a second in my life. I can say it happened during the decade that just finished. It wasn’t love at first sight to begin with, I wasn’t even sure how much I liked it/her.

I can say I owned up to my new love in this very column in 2014.

'I love my iPhone,' I confessed. I continued, 'I stare at in the dark sometimes, gently caressing it'. My wife thinks it’s a bit weird, but she doesn’t understand me...

That’s why my big dread is that one day it may be damaged. I would rather lose it than that. At least if I lost my phone I could grieve. I could have closure. But if I dropped it and the screen got cracked, or the battery started to pack-up, it would sit there in my hand, a constant reminder of what I once had.

My wife borrowed it once without me knowing. You can imagine my wrath. ‘We wants it, we needs it. Must have the precious,’ I hissed at her, and then added: ‘They stole it from us. Sneaky little wifesy. Wicked, tricksy, false!’”

Of course, it isn’t just the iPhone that changed the world, the Android played a role too. It is just that the Apple product came first. Although the Android was already under development in January 2007 when Steve Jobs first revealed the iPhone to the world, as I understand it, at that particular time, there were no plans to give the product a touchscreen keyboard.

Personally, I think the presentation Jobs gave when he announced the iPhone was one of the most inspirational presentations I have ever seen, if you haven’t seen it before, check it out. If you have seen it before, but you are anything like me, check it out again, I have watched it at least a dozen times.

Many were incredulous. The then Microsoft boss, Stave Ballmer, famously laughed at the very idea of a touch screen phone. 

Indeed, for that matter, if Jobs had asked for my opinion (oddly, something he never did!) I too would have advised against it. The only touch screen keyboard I had used was awful. That was the general perception of the public. Jobs’ genius was to ignore research, he realised that sometimes the public is not the best judge of what it wants.

I am not exactly sure when it became clear that the product was going to change the world. I got my first iPhone in the early spring of 2010, I eulogised about it here with the words uttered above around four years later. Sometime between those dates, I fell in love with it.

But such love would have been impossible a few years earlier. It was only with wireless internet access and in particular 4G that the product was of much use. If Apple had launched it a few years sooner, it would have flopped.

But consider its significance. Today, it, along with the Android, is an ‘always with us’ digital camera that a few years ago would have been state of the art. It’s a video camera that has some pretty sophisticated video editing tools. Those features are massively important; they have created this whole new way of recording and storing the story of our life.

Then there is TV. Back in March 2018 it was reported that just 30 per cent of Netflix streaming was on a smart phone, tablet or computer.

This surprises me. I would have thought it would have been higher. Then again, the report was from two years ago, since then smart phone screens have got bigger. I suspect that the percentage of viewing on smart phones will grow. And that in part is why I believe the cinema has a future. The contrast between a big screen, which we view with others, making a social experience and the insular experience of watching streaming on a smartphone, still affords a certain magic to the cinema experience.

There is, however, a paradox with smartphones. They mean that most of us are no more than two or three seconds away from looking up anything — as if smartphones have become extensions of our brains, like we have swallowed the greatest encyclopaedia ever produced. Yet we have fake news, an electorate that seems willing to believe any lie a politician speaks, providing it confirms preconceived beliefs — without even a thought to fact check it. We get the bubble filter, as we engage with networks of like-minded people, exacerbating our bias.

While smart phones should make us wiser, instead they seem to increase prejudice, make us more willing recipients of outrageous lies and increase polarisation.

Smart phones in combination with social media may actually be increasing the risk of a return of fascism.

And while the share price of smart phone makers and some app developers have gone through the roof, they have come to dominance in a decade they saw a very poor economic performance. There appears to be little or no correlation between smartphones and related technologies and economic output.

But the next decade will see radical advances. How long before smartphones are embedded into our glasses or contact lenses? How long before we have ‘always with us’, augmented reality devices, superimposing computer graphics over the real world? How long before we control our smart devices by speech and then by thought? How long before we have AI assistants, always with us, reminding us of things, reminding us who people are when we can’t recall their names or where we met them, or advising us if something we read or hear is factually incorrect?

And will these technologies make us happier or miserable? Will we become wiser or mentally lazy? Will we become more aware of fake news, or gullibly suck up the latest lies we hear, or see?

Unless we see a massive backlash, which I doubt, the companies at the forefront of these technologies will continue to grow?

I believe 2030, or sometime before, will see some tech companies worth several trillion dollars — although the first ten trillion dollar company is probably more than ten years away.

Companies that do not embrace the new technologies, or fail to understand how they will impact their business model, will go, sucked up by the vortex that also ended Kodak and Blockbusters.

Investors who understand the changes afoot and invest accordingly will make a fortune, those who don’t won’t.

Tomorrow, I look at why the carrots called AI and the Internet of Things and the stick called climate change could combine to even undermine capitalism itself during the course of the decade that has just begun.


These views are those of the author alone and do not necessarily reflect the view of The Share Centre, its officers and employees

 

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Michael Baxter

Economics Commentator

Michael is an economics, investment and technology writer, known for his entertaining style. He has previously been a full-time investor, founder of a technology company which was floated on the NASDAQ, and a director of a PR company specialising in IT.

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