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What can we expect in our mobile future?

What will the future of mobile technology moving into and beyond 2013 look like?
December 25, 2012

It seems we’re always looking for the next thing in the world of mobile technology. We get the best thing available and crown it king, only to find there is a usurper to the throne lurking around the corner. Maybe this one has a bigger screen, or a bigger processor. Will it have more memory? We operate in the cloud…so does that even matter? More importantly, will it ever end?

Let’s take a minute to consider what the future holds for us. We’ve become enamored with all the goodies we can get in a device, but where will it end?

The Screen

As we prepare ourselves for CES 2013, news is oozing out that Samsung will have flexible displays ready for us to play with. Yes, those displays you see in commercials where it looks like they’re holding a piece of cellophane are real. Not quite the same as the ad, i’m sure, but close enough. So, does that mean the display and, by virtue, the cell phone of the future will be like having a piece of heavy card-stock paper in your pocket?

Our phones now have densities so high that we can’t readily see the pixels with the naked eye during normal use. Studies show that anything over 300ppi is moot to the naked eye, yet we keep getting higher and higher with pixel density. Why is that? The same reason we climb mountains; because we can. Pixel density on small screens is directly related to resolution, and we’re all guilty of falling in love with resolution.

So what can we expect in the near future? I don’t think the flexible display will be what we think of it. That technology is best served as a feature on a “regular” device, not as a standalone. A flexible display has a lot of promise, but it won’t be the end-all which those cute commercials tell us it is. A flexible display on a normal device could do such things as pinpoint haptic feedback or build textures, which has a lot more to offer a greater number of people.

While screen resolution gets better and better, companies will probably start to concentrate on their color quality rather than pixel density. Put five different devices side by side, and you will have five different shades of black. This is already a point of contention amongst users, and I look to the manufacturers to narrow the gap here.

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The Battery

Not that long ago, a cell phone battery would last for days. All of us that had the old technology lament the battery life we get now. At best I get a full day out of my Nexus 4, which is sadly normal amongst devices now. I haven’t had a smartphone yet that will last all day and through the night, which doesn’t seem very smart to me.

This category has the most promise, and the biggest risk. Batteries are not known for a long life span, or to keep up performance throughout. Their whole existence is a downhill slide into the recycling bin, slowly disappointing us more and more each day. We quietly hate them, but forgive them as we know the issue is not really them, it’s the device…and us.

A device battery is the final frontier on the hardware side of things. It’s the one thing inside your device that has seen almost no improvements. A study at Northwestern University last year yielded a cellphone battery that “charges in 15 minutes and stays charged for more than a week.” I let out a Keanu Reeves “whoa” when I read that. Imagine the convenience of a device that will stay charged for days on end! There is all kinds of new technology being developed for batteries, but we haven’t seen it in our devices yet. Why not?

Manufacturers have been slow to implement change in batteries because of manufacturing cost, but I believe they will begin to institute change soon. As devices get bigger and badder, the battery must follow suit…and let’s be honest, at this point if there was a device that could stay charged with normal usage for a few days and remain slim and sexy, we’d jump all over it.

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The hardware

As batteries see the least improvement, hardware sees the most improvement…and for the same reason; manufacturing cost. The cost of building a new processor or smaller memory is minute in comparison, so we see upgrades here all the time. We have devices that can do much of what our computer at home is capable of, and a lot of that has to do with hardware specs…but where does it end?

I think we’re seeing a levelling-off point here. We’ve got all kinds of wonderful things like NFC, LTE, quad-core processors, lots of memory, etc. wrapped up in these tiny devices. Hardware is tangible, it has mass. We are at an impasse consolidating fast with sleek. We can’t continue to get a slimmer, lighter device that will continually build on performance.

Luckily, the much ballyhooed “cloud” takes care of a large part of the memory concern, but there is a faction of people who don’t feel comfortable with anything less than 32GB or so of on-board storage, which is where I think we can expect devices to hold their ground. In terms of processors, we now have quad core devices with 8-core right around the corner (rumored to be in the Samsung Galaxy S4). If each is double the speed of it’s predecessor, processors will be much like displays; we will get to a point we can’t really tell anymore. Expect to see 16-core processors in a year or two, but not much beyond that.

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The camera

The camera is a huge deal to any cell phone user. I make the distinction here with “cell phone” rather than “device” because, well, taking pictures with a tablet is awkward and should not be encouraged.

The inclusion of cameras on cell phones was originally kind of annoying because the camera was horrible. Now that we have 8MP cameras, it’s pretty great. We no longer take cameras with us to special occasions because the camera on our phone will do a more than adequate job. We have our phones, which take great pics and very decent video…so why carry another device?

The cell phone camera will get better, but there is a limit to what can be done with such a small hardware footprint. We can comfortably get 8 megapixels with the rear camera, but that’s not enough for us. With the advances we’re seeing with hardware, we can expect the same with cameras. While 8MP is great, 12MP or 16MP would be perfect. A phone will never really be a camera, but it can come really close!

We should also expect to see improvements with the front-facing camera. The front-facing camera can be used for much more than those lame self-pics we’re all guilty of, and once things like skype chats or hangouts become part of our routine, we will want a better front-facing camera. I don’t think a 4MP front facing camera is far fetched or far off.

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Keep in mind that while I’m discussing the “future” of devices, I’m only talking about the next two years or so. It would be silly to project any further, because this industry simply moves too fast to be predictable. If you come back in 2 years and read this article on your 64-core device with a 12-inch screen that folds up like a napkin, I won’t be shocked. Jealous, maybe…but not shocked.

As an observer and lover of technology, I think the one thing not discussed is the one thing that will drive this discussion…but there is no way to predict it. I’m talking about services. Services drive our devices, plain and simple. A device is little more than a gateway to services, and should be thought of as much. It’s why you have the slim, light, cool devices you do. Imagine if app data had to be loaded into the memory, or those games you love required a cartridge. You’d be lugging around half a suitcase all day!

Services comprise everything you love about your device, whether it be checking your email, writing a quick to-do list, or playing a first-person shooter game…those are all services. What will the future bring us in terms of services? It’s scary to think about. With so many bright developers and studios bringing us such a diversity of offerings, only time will tell what we will see.