It may seem premature to talk about a world beyond the smartphone. Despite the prevalence of wearables, voice interfaces and artificial intelligence, nothing seems ready to pluck our phones from our hands.
And yet, all of the major technology companies in the West are placing their bets on what might emerge as the platform of the future: Apple and Facebook are betting on augmented and virtual reality, platforms that play to their strengths as toolmakers and could develop new creative ecosystems.
Google and Amazon are focused more on infrastructure, with Assistant, Alexa and initiatives like Go laying the groundwork for our future connected cities.
Notably, none of these platforms are natural environments for traditional advertising, so as they develop, brands wishing to engage with them will need to find ways to add endemic value.
Let's take a look at four ways in which these next-generation technologies are already starting to shape consumer attention.
If the era when desktops and laptops ruled computing was defined by productivity -- first with Word and Excel, and later with Photoshop and Final Cut -- then it's clear that the smartphone era has been dominated by creativity. Recently, it has meant Bitmoji and AR lenses in Snapchat, Creative Mode in Fortnite, and challenges on TikTok.
More people create, remix and share content in more ways than ever before, and this high rate of participation means creativity will need to be baked into new platforms from the beginning.
For all brands, this focus on creativity will cause a fundamental shift in how we engage with our consumers. New platforms and younger consumers expect to be engaged in the conversation, and to be given the tools to incorporate your brand into their culture, in ways that may not be on-message, but which feel organic to them.
Solutions are beginning to fill that gap, as brands partner with companies like Unsplash to deploy product shots and brand images, and SketchFab to distribute 3D models and brand assets directly into VR and AR design tools. This may be the most effective way to market in a world where everyone is a creator: don't try to control the message, just give them the raw materials and the freedom to use them.
Google's focus on ambient computing is centered on the personal, and is poised to use Google Assistant as the glue between different parts of Google's ecosystem, as well as a bridge to the rest of the world.
Amazon, in contrast, is building from the outside in. Instead, look at the retail infrastructure that Amazon is putting into place: Amazon Go, as a platform, allows users to be “logged in” to a physical store in the same way they are logged into Amazon.com on the web.
One day soon, all retail stores will work this way, and will be powered by a small handful of companies providing this functionality.
If our personal identities will increasingly become tied to public space, our smart homes will soon become stitched together into neighborhoods and eventually cities.
We can see this happening today with Ring, as neighbors share video and create neighborhood message boards. As we build out from the home, and in from the city, eventually these two initiatives will meet, and there may be a reckoning in terms of platform interoperability.
We will need to redefine the boundary between public and private, and create tools and technologies to transition between them. Today it is relatively easy to be anonymous in a big city. But tomorrow, it will be increasingly difficult, as our online identities start to become more entwined with our physical location.
For decades, media had run parallel to the rest of our lives, on a regular schedule: morning papers, drive-time radio, evening news, prime-time TV. But uncoupling media from the constraints of physical media and analog distribution has meant not only the breakdown of the monoculture, but also such a high proliferation of content that keeping up with it has become impossible.
So we have been leaning on algorithms to help us muddle through.
Increasingly, those algorithms are controlling not just our media consumption, but every other part of our day as well. Our devices can already tell us when to sleep, wake, work, exercise and meditate. And in the near future they will be able to tell us not only when to eat but what to eat, not just when to work, but what type of work our minds are best suited to at the moment.
Success for brands, creators, and individuals in a culture driven by algorithms can come by thoroughly embracing the algorithms, or by pushing back against them.
Rebelling against the algorithms will also be a sound strategy, as human-curated collections and trusted brand names carry more weight with overwhelmed consumers.
The Age of Anxiety
This investment in human curation is part of a larger trend that is simmering beneath the coming decade: a slow but growing drumbeat of anxiety surrounding the momentous changes that are being borne out of our always-connected, always-online culture.
Democratized Creativity will give rise to even more high-quality media to consume, which will drive us into the arms of Algorithmic Culture as a solution, even as Ambient Computing increases the parts of our day that are run by media and algorithms.
In order to thrive in this new world, most importantly, brands must be sure that we are not contributing to the problem, with respectful privacy and data practices. Next, we can provide tools to help consumers navigate this new reality.
Whether it's human curation of content, or customized agents and algorithms that can help personalize while preserving privacy, consumers will be hungry for answers from trusted sources.
And finally, we can offer an escape. Whether that be a total digital detox, or a quick escape in the middle of a mediated workday, comfort and control will be in short supply, and any brand that can offer a respite will be welcomed with open arms.