Issue #17: A Retrospective Of The 2010s

The Rise And Fall Of Mobile

Obviously I didn’t work on January 1, 2010, because it was a national holiday in the UK. Had I turned on a computer, it would have been to run Fuzzy Aliens, a software security consultancy focused on the new and exciting world of smartphone apps. Forget what you know about Sharp’s Zaurus or Palm PDAs, I would say, iPhone and Android represent a huge shift in the way that people interact with remote services, and we need to ensure that we protect their data and our businesses. This was perhaps a bit of a stretch at the time: Facebook was still only available on mobile via x.facebook.com (their app would launch in 2010, and their featurephone app in 2011), the Motorola ROKR “iTunes Phone” was still on sale, and it was still too early to decide whether people wanted to share their photos via Instagram or PicPlz.

I also wasn’t working on December 31, 2019, which isn’t a national holiday but I just had other plans. I probably had a computer turned on because my smartphone is usually on me throughout the day, had I used it it would’ve been to check inane feeds on Twitter and Facebook, post a picture of my cat to Instagram (sorry, PicPlz), or catch some Pokémon. I might have found time to run The Labrary, a software consultancy started because there are bigger software quality problems than the narrow scope of security.

The phrase “Rise and Fall” often suggests a roughly hump-shaped distribution of “successfulness”. The Roman Empire had to rise before it could fall. Extremist authoritarian regimes rose across Europe in the beginning of the 19th Century, falling (for the most part) by the end of the 20th. My suggestion is that in the world of mobile computing, the two have happened simultaneously.

The rise, of course, is in coverage, access to, and use of, mobile computing. In the UK, for example, mobile phone ownership rose from 81% to 95% over the first half of the decade, and plateaued there. Smartphones went from a large minority to the overwhelming majority of UK mobile phones. Worldwide, there were approximately 76 cellular subscriptions per 100 people in 2010. The same data set shows 105 cellular subscriptions per 100 people in 2018, the last year for which data are available. The UK has had approximately 120 subscriptions per 100 people throughout the decade, the story looks very different in India or Eritrea.

In the developed world, this growth coincided with a change in design philosophy for mobile access. Technologies like WAP and i-mode, already nearly defunct at the start of the decade, represented a “mobile-afterward” design school that shifted to “mobile-also” with the responsive movement. Responsive designers made sure that their work degraded gracefully to smaller and less capable mobile platforms. But now we have “mobile first“, in which we design for vastly more capable smartphone and tablet experiences, and then “scale up” later, if ever, to the big screen: desktops accounted for 98.4% of “computers with screens” in Jan 2010, and 44.0% in Dec 2019.

Alongside this transformation occurred a mindset shift in business leaders. “Digital transformation” was a term that had already jumped from a dry, technical meaning – the encoding of analogue data into digital form – to a breathless adapt-or-die call for CEOs, CTOs, consultants and MBA students over the previous decade. This had taken a long time: the term was used by Jacques Vallée in his book “The Network Revolution: Confessions of a Computer Scientist” back in 1982. But the beginning of the 2010s saw “industry 4.0” and similar terms enter the business school parlance, as ideas like Agile and Lean software development made their way out of the cube farms and into the board rooms.

These ideas weren’t so much computer-centric or mobile-centric, in fact they explicitly rejected that framing. “Digital” consultants focus on the customer, because ultimately customers are the people who choose whether to use your service or acquire your product. A digital transformation is about cutting through legacy processes and bureaucracy, and putting the customer and their intentions at the heart of your work, even your identity as a company. The decade saw the growth of the phrase “customer journey”, then in the last couple of years the start of its decline.

The fall of mobile throughout the last decade took place alongside this rise in availability and sales. The multiplicity of platforms evinced at the start of the decade quickly collapsed to two, particularly after the dramatic implosion of Windows Phone taking Nokia, a long-lived diverse organisation and mainstay of the mobile phone revolution, with it. Other attempts to introduce a “third player”, much sought after by carriers who have seen “over-the-top” services eat their lunches, have been even less successful. Firefox OS was supported for a short time on a handful of devices, and Tizen is more frequently seen in Android accessories like wearables than in Samsung’s Z series of phones.

The two dominant mobile platforms, Android and iOS, exist in a complicated dance in which neither appears to be monopoly as defined narrowly by anticompetition laws, and yet both demonstrate much more vendor lock-in than even the worst offenders of earlier decades. Remember how Microsoft faced two massive court cases, one for bundling a browser and the other for bundling a media player? Now tell me how to change Safari or Apple Music from being the default in each of their categories.

Not that it matters. Alongside the fall in choice and competition came the fall in relevance. Whatever bits your phone’s software platform is made out of, the likelihood is that its apps are made out of one of the common cross-platform toolkits: React Native, Flutter, Xamarin, Ionic, Unity. Those are the ones that you get via the monopolistic marketplace, or “app store”, anyway. The remaining software is all run through the browser. A small but vocal community of “native” developers on each platform try to stake out their patch of land and market the benefits of “going native” on behalf of their trillion-dollar overlords. Meanwhile, advances in low-power CPU and solid-state storage are being absorbed by Javascript virtual machines of increasing complexity.

Also falling is the value of these computers. As app producers have increasingly weaponised psychology and mental health, phones have increasingly become things we tap at aimlessly while not being rewarded more than the minimum required to attempt another tap. Social media companies optimised for “time spent”, ensuring that we would stay just long enough to watch the next ad or engage with the next brand. Remembering that “brands” started out as hot irons used to permanently mark slaves as belonging to their owners, the analogous use in the world of social capitalism seems a powerful metaphor. Games leave us just short of the energy/crop/coins/whatever needed to progress unless we buy some of their in-game currency. Sorry, exchange, not buy.

And even if you want to look up from your picplz feed and get on with some real work, you can’t, sorry. Mobile platforms never really offered the same way to build complex interactions between components (sorry, “apps”) that earlier platforms did with languages like AppleScript, Rexx, and Bash. Designers told us our software should “do one thing well”, a catastrophic reduction in ambition from “making the simple things simple and the complex things possible”.

The 2010s will be remembered as the decade in which personal computing finally became ubiquitous at the same rate at which it became worthless. Where we go from here is up to us.

Cover photo by Adrian Kosmaczewski.

Graham is the chief labrarian of The Labrary, where the library and the laboratory intersect. He got hooked on making quality software in front of a NeXT TurboStation Color, and still has a lot to learn.