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What can we expect from our smartphones two years from now? That's a pretty short amount of time, but a number of technologies that have been in development for years are about to jump from lab to factory, and straight into the next generation of mobile devices. Rather than explore the what-if's and could-be's of future smartphones, let's take a reality-based look at what's coming around the bend.
Access To Faster Mobile Networks
Always-On Internet Connectivity
Greater Memory Capacity, Options
The smartphones of 2010 are not going to be leaps and bounds better than they are today, but they will be closer to becoming the single most important devices we own. "There are three key trends that will cause a fundamental change in the role and nature of smartphones over the next few years: broadband everywhere, digitization of all content, and pocket computing power," said Juergen Stark, corporate VP and general manager of Motorola's Mobile Devices.
These trends have already turned cell phones into smartphones and will drive the evolution of smartphones into devices that are always connected, that have access to all of your digital content as well as to the Web, and that provide a wider array set of personal services.
A Smart Phone Is A Connected Phone
According to Motorola's Stark, there are three components in this future solution: the mobile hardware, the mobile operating systems, and the Web-based ecosystem. "This ecosystem will include many apps and services that will come from a variety of providers, big and small, but will be anchored around a few key services," he said. "The other apps and services will be like smaller tenants around anchor tenants at the mall. Those key services will be: communications, contacts, calendar, location services, payment, identity, and content access/management."
The biggest opportunities and changes will come with broadband Internet connectivity that is available no matter where you are. The next generation of wireless networks is on its way. Verizon Wireless and Sprint already have 3G networks up and running across most of the United States. AT&T is slowly catching up, and T-Mobile will eventually get around to rolling out its own high-speed network as well. These 3G networks will evolve to 3.5G networks in two years time, meaning faster downloading and uploading of content via smartphones. While 4G networks on are the horizon, none will be widespread in just two years.
Smartphones, more than any other device, will be able to take advantage of these networks to empower users to do or access nearly anything.
But they will need better processing muscle to take advantage of the faster networks. Enter Intel's Moorestown chip. Due in about two years, Moorestown is the soul of an old machine -- a PC -- in miniature. It's an x86 processor with a graphics adapter, shrunk onto a chip that fits on board a smartphone.
Look at usage models of most smartphones. People like to access their online accounts; but today, looking for (and at) information on a WAP-based browser is difficult. Combining ubiquitous high-speed networks with fleet-of-foot HTML-based mobile browsers means you'll have the power of the Web in the palm of your hand. "The complete Internet experience that you have on your PC will be available in the mobile space," said Sebastian Nystrom, director of technology strategy with Nokia.
"What's coming on top of that will be widgets, small applications that run on your device and access information on the back end. Mobility will bring new aspects to the Internet. We'll see more devices that offer a truly comparable experience to the broadband access that people have at home today. That is going to be a key enabler."
Laptops, by comparison, may be mobile, but you don't use them when you walk down the street or drive to the same extent that you use a pocketable mobile device. People will start to see the power of how Internet applications are evolving and how they are tied to mobility. Applications such as GPS-based location and navigation, social networking, and Web 2.0 tools will present many opportunities for developers to enrich the devices.
More Memory For Multimedia Apps
A coming shift in how smartphones fit into our digital lives will be much less about getting the phone to do what other portable devices do today (camera, music player, gaming, etc.) and more about connecting you to your Web-ecosystem of apps, services, and content. "Having a device that is always with you, always connected, and has the power to run all of your key applications and access all of your digital content will drive a massive change in the role of the smartphone and have a more profound impact on how we live our lives day-to-day than any consumer electronics device in history," noted Motorola's Stark.
In terms of applications, anything that has to do with entertainment, music, and video is going to be big. Increases in memory capacity will play a large role in this. Today we have two types. Some smartphones have on-board memory and others use MicroSD cards. Going forward, we'll still see a combination of this. One form is not going to win. Either way, storage capacity is going to increase dramatically. "Flexibility for large-capacity cards, allows you to move content easier," said Silviu Moraru, manager of technology and competitive intelligence for Samsung.
12 Gbytes, at your fingertips
At CES last month, SanDisk displayed a tiny 12-Gbyte MicroSD card (six times the capacity SanDisk had a year ago) -- think of all the photos, video, and music a card like this could hold when slipped inside a smartphone.
Those images can then be projected onto a flat surface and shared with others, when tiny projectors from Microvision, 3M, and TI hit the market. "With Microvision's projector, you could view and share everything ranging from YouTube videos, MSN newscasts, and Google search results to PowerPoint presentations, feature-length films, and family photos in a large, full-color, high-resolution format instead of a 2-inch, Quarter Video Graphics Array display," said Alexander Tokman, Microvision's president and CEO, in a statement.
Having access to your content and being able to display and transfer large amounts of it easily will let people do more with the devices. This includes watching movies, listening to music, shooting and storing high-quality pictures and video, and sharing it via tools such as Flickr, Picasa, YouTube and others. Smartphones will access all of your content and all of your media, including work and personal documents, music, video, etc. Some of this will be stored on the device, some will be stored in the network cloud.
"Clearly the software capabilities of these devices is going to be really fantastic," said Nokia's Nystrom. "With the evolution of processing power, the richness is quite astonishing. The performance of the devices and applications to create fantastic effects, enhance content and be responsive is increasing all the time."
Targeted Smartphone Features
So what else will the smartphones of 2010 be packing? Here are some thoughts from Motorola, Nokia, and Samsung.
First, smartphones will be targeted at different user segments. Some users want better cameras, others don't need them. Some want QWERTY keyboards, others prefer touch screens. In the end, it really depends on how attractive a particular feature is to the customer. "The things that people prioritize on are different," said Samsung's Moraru. "There will be no Swiss Army Knife device. You'll have more targeted solutions."
Vendors will continue to experiment with different form factors (slider, touch panel, QWERTY, etc.) but this will settle down to a couple of preferred form factors that provide the biggest screen and best keypad in the most pocketable device.
Will it be touch screens or QWERTY keyboards rule the day? "A combination of touch and keys will make the most sense," said Motorola's Stark. "Individuals will have their own personal bias in terms of what they like best and devices which come in multiple flavors will be the rule. The ability to type messages quickly will be a rapidly increasing requirement on even regular phones."
Faster Bluetooth, More GPS-powered Apps
Bluetooth is already pretty much in every smartphone already. In a couple of years, we'll see Bluetooth evolve to provide better connectivity and faster data transfers with Bluetooth 3.0. Local wireless connections will primarily be Wi-Fi. "In 2010, you'll see Bluetooth and Wi-Fi in every device," said Nokia's Nystrom. "Ultra Wideband adoption will be slow; the ecosystem won't be there yet. In the bigger scheme of things, Wi-Fi is really going to be important. It will be leveraged for downloads on much faster networks than the HSPA or EV-DO networks. And there is a move to have devices that support a/b/g and n. Multiple radio technologies are going to be on board."
Nystrom also believes near-field communications (NFC), used for mobile payment systems, will be mainstream. "Networks and banks are rolling out NFC systems. They fit nicely in a mobile device and are one of the more promising new technologies to be developed recently. Two years from now, smartphones will have this technology."
GPS will power everything. Smartphones will have GPS systems on board, and, with location-aware Internet services, will do more than help you get from point A to point B. GPS-powered applications will help you find your family, friends, and colleagues, as well as connect you with services in your vicinity.
One thing we won't see much of is WiMax. "It is really dependent on its rollout and where [Sprint's] focus is going to be going forward," said Samsung's Moraru. "It will take a while before we really get to see widespread 4G. WiMax will definitely be in aircards, but not in phones, not in two years. There is a pretty big risk involved. Until things are more solid, and Sprint solves its other problems, people are going to be cautious about WiMax. It will probably emerge, but won't be widespread."
Nokia believes sensor-based interaction is going to play a big role in smartphones two years from now. Some phones, such as the iPhone, already automatically reorient the screen depending on which way you hold the device. Many more phones will have this type of technology built in. "We've already been talking about and showing some sensor-based user experiences on high-level devices," said Nokia's Nystrom. "Combining motion sensors and accelerometers together with location-based technologies, local payment technologies, etc., it really creates a whole new set of opportunities for people to interact with phones. Simple gestures, such as devices you can shake, or turn to navigate in 3-D, or move to find out where North actually is, will be prevalent."
Nokia, for example, is bringing to market a new way to silence a phone call. Simply turn your phone over when you see an incoming call that you don't want to answer. The phone will be silenced and the call sent to voice mail.
The Wait For A Better Battery Continues
One place where smartphones won't make a major leap is with battery life. That's not to say that phone makers aren't working on the problem. "Motorola has significant engineering and intellectual property to get the best battery life possible while running a device that is increasingly a pocket computer. ... And we make additional improvements every year. That said, the ability to power these device will be a critical constraint which will not be addressed by continual advancements on current battery technology."
While smartphones of the future won't be able to do everything we see in science fiction movies, they are moving forward rapidly. Some technologies that have been evolving over the last several years will be ready for prime time in 2010, and smartphones will be the first devices to adopt them.