The ascent of the smartphone

Smartphones are evolving rapidly in sophistication. What will they be capable of in a year or two or even five years' time? First, you have to define what a smartphone is, says E&T.

How do you define a smartphone? Devices like Apple's iPhone, RIM's Blackberry and, say, a Nokia E61, are clearly the physical manifestation. But what identifies them as smarter than ordinary mobile phones?

Is it just down to functionality? Smartphones now carry email client, Web browser, GPS functionality, desktop synchronisation tools, as well as organiser-type functions such as diary, contacts, notepad and voice recorder.

But, as mobile carriers seek to increase average revenue per user (ARPU) by replacing shrinking revenue from voice traffic with data usage, and handset makers, equipped with greater byte per buck, tempt us to upgrade every year, so the functionality of ordinary mobiles increases.

Mobile GPS

Yesterday's smartphone is tomorrow's ordinary mobile. Email and Web access were arguably the defining smartphone applications a year ago, but numerous mid-market handsets now have this functionality as standard.

GPS is the function du jour, but will soon become de rigueur. Nokia's engineers predict half of all mobiles in use - in use, not just on sale - will be GPS-enabled by 2010.

Will the category of smartphone die out as all handsets become smarter? No, say future-watchers and market analysts, but the boundaries will become more blurred.

The smartphone evolved from a mating of the mobile phone and PDA. In fact, to stretch a Darwinian metaphor, one could say that conventional PDAs are an evolutionary dead end, a bit like Neanderthals, and smartphones are their natural successors.

Early PDAs were little more than electronic diaries with no connectivity. RIM was the first to make popular a device integrating the functions of a mobile phone, PDA and mobile email in the shape of the Blackberry 4270. Its wider-than-high shield shape and qwerty keyboard identified it as very different from the mobile phones of the day.

Software and network services

Since then, it has been software and network services that have dictated users' experience, rather than any fixed hardware configuration.

Adam Leach, principal analyst at Ovum, says that in the near future it will be Web convergence between mobile and desktop platforms which will keep smartphones ahead of their less capable cousins.

"Graphically rich Internet applications are the norm on the desktop platform. Smartphones will be marked out by use of the same frameworks as the desktop," says Leach. "We already see this happening with the desktop-like Safari browser used by Apple and Nokia."

As this trend advances, expect differences between the way in which smartphones evolve for consumers and for businesses.

While the chipsets of the hardware platform will be essentially the same, the software overlaying them on consumer devices will be more geared to entertainment. For example, music and video downloads and data and applications streamed from the network or Web, such as access to social networking sites like Facebook, Bebo and MySpace, video from YouTube and real-time multiplayer games.

Business devices will use the same underlying hardware but for different applications. While email, a horizontal application, dominates the current crop of business smartphones, the next step is access to Web-based line of business applications, such as database queries, CRM and salesforce management.

With mobile workers accessing critical enterprise applications and data, manageability and security of smartphones and their back-end software will dominate business buyers' choices.

This will further drive the bifurcated evolution of smartphones, says Leach, with qwerty keyboards, a la Blackberry, dominating the business sector and immersive touch-screen interfaces for consumers.

Software engineers will have their work cut out for them to provide touch-screen interfaces which provide easy and intuitive access to the endless customisation and downloads that will be available on near-future consumer handsets.

Who will support consumers in possession of a variety of phone configurations that tends towards infinity - the network operators?

Wi-Fi and Wimax

One thing that is fairly safe to predict: there will be a lot more Wi-Fi or WiMax hotspots in the near future. There are now more than 350 commercial and trial WiMax networks around the world, according to IDC.

Smartphones will be expected to use these to make cheaper VoIP calls and data transfers, as well as use the cellular network. Of course, phones with Wi-Fi capability are already on the market, but seamless switching between Wi-Fi and cellular networks remains elusive.

This will be important for business smartphones which, inevitably, are used extensively on-campus by corridor surfers. According to BT, as many as four in ten business mobile calls are made from the office.

Nokia engineers predict that the convergence of data and voice networks in organisations will naturally lead to Wi-Fi-enabled smartphones replacing the conventional desk phone, providing a single point of contact managed by VoIP-PBXs.

Although the prediction lies in the category of 'they would say that wouldn't they?', you can see the logic behind it. The mobile has become the lingua franca of business communication. A knowledge worker's mobile device will already contain his or her most important business contacts in a familiar interface.

The ability to profile smartphones with contact preferences will also be important. Such 'presence' information will be available to callers so they know what method of contact you prefer in any given situation. With limited training, the smartphone will be able to auto-sense these situations and alter your presence profile automatically as you leave the office or enter home, for example.

But presence will require careful implementation, or it will hog too much bandwidth.

Beyond the near future, how will the evolution of smartphones pan out in the next five years and beyond?

Assuming the split between business and consumer devices becomes entrenched, the business device will gain the power to do more of the work currently done by laptops. By 2012, half of all business junket attendees will be travelling without their laptops, predicts Gartner.

In the consumer arena, Ovum's Leach sees an increasing ability to swap content between a smartphone and the consumer electronics 'ecosystem' - set-top box, games console and PC - with technologies and standards evolving to facilitate this.

Cellular functionality will be built into other devices, but the smartphone will persist as the portable device of choice.

"There will be a role for the [smartphone] for some time to come," says Leach. "Other devices will have cellular connectivity: you see it already with 3G dongles for laptops and soon that will become built-in functionality. But will this replace the phone? No."

Mobile entertainment at your fingertips

Other future-watchers predict that vendors will increasingly emphasise entertainment over communication. Consumers will buy a camera which is also a phone, or a music player which is also a phone, or a portable games console which is also a phone, or a video player which is also a phone.

Currently, the emphasis is the other way around with these features added to a device which is obviously and foremost a phone. Nokia (games player), Siemens (camera) and others have already had a stab at this - unsuccessfully - but their products can be considered as harbingers ahead of their time rather than failures.

However, as connectivity becomes a given, the balance will change. As this happens, the consumer smartphone will begin to disappear into other devices which are no longer thought of as phones.

The SIM card, memory cards and content will be swappable between these portable entertainment devices.

Eventually, the smartphone will be broken down into components and integrated into clothing along with other computing functionality.

So-called wearable computers and clothing from companies like Urban Tool, which are designed to accommodate mobile devices, are early examples of this trend.

In this alternative future, the consumer smartphone is just as likely to be a garment joint-branded by Gap and Samsung.

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