The smartphone is in for a radical change, not only in its function, but also in the way it looks and is carried. And it will spin off its functions to other devices, creating a vast and vibrant electronic ecosystem. In the second of a two-part series, Siegfried Mortkowitz reports.
However, Michael Morgan, senior analyst for mobile devices at ABI Research,is one of several analysts who believes that “the flexible screen, as it is demonstrated today, is not part of the future of smartphone design; it’s just showcasing design flexibility.”
The screen evolves
Instead, he envisages a device with “a screen that rolls out from handset to tablet size.” “They will be small enough to carry unobtrusively but can be rolled out to a more useful, tablet size,” he says.
Iain Gillott, president of the Texas-based wireless consultancy iGR, agrees with Morgan. “If a tablet rolled up into a tube like an old scroll, well, that’s something that has some legs to it,” he says. “People don’t want small, they want screens. Some phones are now as big as iPad minis. People are consuming content. In the future, video delivery will be even bigger.”
This development is apparently not far away from being realized. According to recent news reports, a University of California, Los Angeles, research team has developed a display, based on OLED technology, which not only bends but can be folded up or stretched to more than twice its normal size without being damaged.
Because of the growing popularity of videos and other visual data, Gillott believes screens may one day be actually separated from the device’s processor and radio.
“What if you have multiple displays as you move through your urban environment, as in the film ‘Minority Report’?” he muses. “The screen becomes yours, but all the data is in the Cloud. Maybe we need to divorce the radio and the processor from the screen.”
Gillott says that there are already screens everywhere, but one must be able to tap into them.
“There’s a big screen in your hotel room,” he says. “Why not hook it up like in your office? And why not have screens at the back of the seat in front of me on a plane? Technology-wise, we can do it. But the business model is a problem, a five-year problem.”
According to David Foos, chief executive officer of the software consultancy Room 5, two developments are driving the growth and evolution of mobile devices.
“First, we now have fairly ubiquitous operating systems, such as Android, which is deployed across a range of devices,” he explains. “And, second, we have very inexpensive components. All the guts of our devices have become much less expensive and much more powerful.”
These developments, he says, will enable companies to build wearables, which he sees as driving mobile development in the near future. “Beyond the physical phone, what’s interesting in the next 18 months are the devices that will be developed within the existing phone ecosystem,” he says.
One idea that could be very popular is a wallet with augmented reality (AR) features which could inform the user if there were sales in a store in his or her vicinity, Foos says. “I believe we will see lots of good ideas, mostly focused on adding functionality to the user, such as health and wellness elements.”
Foos also believes that “as healthcare becomes an increasingly important issue in both the United States and globally, wearables have the potential to extend care and monitoring beyond the clinic or hospital.”
And he sees wearables of all kinds as “easy stepping points” to the collection of data. “We already see companies exploring touch sensors in the form of latex-type skin covering,” he says. “In addition, flexible displays will eventually make their way into clothing.”
The role of the smarpthone changes
Like Morgan, he believes the smartphone will eventually serve as the hub of an individual’s connected life.
“The phone has done a good job of providing useful information from a single source,” he says. “The consumer wants a unified experience; and the phone will likely continue to be the collection and display point for other connected devices.” This will ultimately lead to what he calls “a layered array of distributed computing and general info-materials, with the smartphone as gatekeeper.”
Morgan says that consumer behavior is changing the smartphone’s look and functionality and driving the development of its ecosystem already. Like Gillott, he foresees a separation of is voice and visual functions.
“The phone will disappear as something we hold,” Morgan says. “It will become, for example, a sticker you put behind your ear, powered by your own body, with the screen in your eyes. We no longer only use the phone for a voice. We are moving from an ear-based concept to an eye-based concept. If we increase the viewing space available, with a scrollable screen, for example, the voice part could be compressed into, say, a smartwatch.”
Voice is no longer the key functionality, he believes. “Voice capabilities are seeping into everything, computers, watches, automobiles, televisions and more.”
This, he says, is the way all technology evolves: “Over the long term, all technology will become ubiquitous. It will be available to us wherever we want it or need it. When we don’t want it, it will be invisible, in the background.”
Google Glass forward
Morgan firmly believes in the future of wearables, and especially in “smartglasses,” such as Google Glass, currently being prepared for mass marketing. “The voice part of the smartphone will move to something very simple,” he says. “The screen part of the smartphone moves to glasses. Information will be sent straight to your field of vision.”
Among other wearables, he foresees an in-ear speaker, perhaps located just behind the ear, so that the user does not lose sound from the environment, as well as wristbands that constantly monitor the user’s physical condition.
“The closer the devices get to the human body,” Morgan says, “the closer they are to being ubiquitous.”
The devices we will use in the future, he adds, will be a portal that connects both our digital and real environments. As a result, “we will be constantly producing data to a certain end, and we will always be able to access the data we want and need at any time.”
Two practical obstacles remain to be solved: perfecting the voice recognition function that activates and runs things like smartglasses and extending battery power so the devices don’t need to be recharged frequently. But he is confident that it is just a matter of time before these issues are resolved.
“For example, we are starting to see low-power smartphone chips that are solely dedicated to the constant monitoring of every motion and sounds a user makes just to keep the phone aware of the user’s contextual situation,” he says.
Will anything not change?
With all these changes in the smartphone ahead, will anything at all remain of the familiar device we use today?
“The shiny black box we know today could be with us for a while,” Gillott says. “It actually works very well.”
Morgan believes that, despite the growing popularity of touchscreen interfaces, the keyboard will stay with us for some time too. “In terms of writing text, the keyboard remains the most efficient method,” he says.
Siegfried Mortkowitz is a regular contributor to Open Mobile Media.
(For part one of the series, see Wearables, ubiquity and the future of the smartphone, part I.)
For all the latest mobile trends, check out The Open Mobile Summit on May 19-20 in London, Telematics Detroit 2014 on June 4-5 in Novi, Michigan, Wallet Wars USA on June 17-18 in New York and The Open Mobile Summit and Appcelerate in November in San Francisco.