Captain James T Kirk holding communicator

The next 25 years of the mobile phone

The Star Trek communicator is on its way, says E&T.

In 25 years, the mobile phone, like many companion electronics devices, has come a long way. But what will the next 25 hold? And how will these changes affect us?

From a market point of view, the mobile phone has become pervasive in both the business world and the consumer marketplace. Those people who have not yet managed to move to one device that can fulfil their needs for their working and private lives, will find this happening. As part of the general consumerisation of IT, it will be a personal device that is also used for business, rather than the other way around. This is in contrast to the way in which the business use of personal computers led to their adoption at home.

Future generations will laugh at the idea that people once carried two mobile phones, although this is currently the case due to inflexible billing/ business models and corporate security/infrastructure concerns. In 25 years’ time, work will be much more fluid and most professional people will work flexibly for a number of organisations, offering their skills in multiple short projects.

The idea of having your main communications device issued by each company will be ridiculous. Companies will have realised that they cannot keep pace with the rate of innovation in the consumer market and, since their people will want the best devices, it will be the consumer market that drives the business world of mobile communications.

Future capabilities

We are already seeing a transition at the smartphone end of the market from phone to Internet communicator. At present, users still have to worry about whether their calls are cellular network calls or Internet-connected calls. Like other seamless transitions, the distinction from the users’ perspective will disappear.

The true ‘Star Trek’-type communicator is coming. Just as Kirk never chose his application or network to make a call, neither will we in the future.

Voice control, too, will develop further. In-car voice dialling and usable voice control, as implemented on the latest iPhone, show how this can work to enhance, rather than detract from, the user experience. Video options for mobile calls will also be possible though not always desirable, especially given that people carry their mobiles with them almost everywhere.

Soon we will see devices incorporating contactless technology, such as that used in Transport for London’s Oyster travelcard. The technology will be used as a general small-value payment card and travel enabler, providing another revenue stream for those being paid, and greater convenience for those who are paying. Secure payments will in time lead to secure authentication for other purposes, such as vehicle or building access. The mobile can become a component in the standard three-part authentication system, of something you know (for example, a passcode), something you have (for example, the mobile device) and something you are (for example, through the measurement of a biometric feature).

Video orientation

Thus we begin to see that the mobile will become not just a communicator but a true information provider and personal enabler. The cameras and other sensors employed in future devices will automatically detect a mass of information about the user, as well as the context or situation they are in.

Phones that know a user’s location precisely are already commonplace. We are increasingly seeing phones that also know the direction in which the user is facing, using magnetometers, and the orientation, direction and speed of movement the device is experiencing, using accelerometers. Video sensors will not only take pictures but also enable objects to be recognised and relevant information instantly provided about them. As well as touch interfaces, the same video sensors will be able to recognise gestures made by users, further masking the complexity of the device to enhance usability. Devices that mix images of the real world and information from the virtual world will provide an augmented reality and a more immersive virtual experience.

The future mobile device will need to work as part of a team, in the sense that most users will have many other devices that need to share information and media with it. This synchronisation will need to be far more robust than today, where it is often the user who has to understand what has gone wrong when data goes missing or is duplicated. The mobile will use the ‘cloud’ to enable far more than the syncing of messages, contacts and calendar information. Setting up new devices and customising them to your preferences will be easier, given that your existing devices will know how you like things done.

But your future team-working mobile will do more than simply synchronise and back up personal information and media. When you walk into a room that has a better screen or method of interaction available than the one on the device, your device will be able to partner with it, to give you temporary use, without any complex configuration or cabling issues.

Again, our descendants will laugh when they look back at the ridiculous scenes of their ancestors fumbling around to make the picture on a laptop appear properly on a projection screen. This team of devices may include components of what we consider the current mobile phone being split apart and provided as separate, cooperating pieces. This will enable the different parts to be optimised for ease of use yet still to work together to provide more capability than the individual pieces alone.

Companion displays will not just be touch-sensitive, but also collapsible, foldable or rollable, adding to convenience. Many of these component parts will be wearable, as technology becomes even more a part of the person. By 2035, when another 25 years has passed, people will be considering integrating technology into their bodies, rather than just their clothes.

Hardware App stores

The most recent mobile trend has been the online application store, where users can discover, download, sometimes pay and use new applications for their phones. In future, this will extend to third-party hardware too, further extending the phone’s role in communicating information on behalf of the user. This will make it easy for developers and seamless for users. Examples of such hardware may include personal health monitors, home and vehicle security systems and other entertainment systems. Ecosystems will develop around the most successful of these.

Over time, the high end of the market will be populated with smart mobile communicators, while today’s high-end smartphones will become the basic devices of tomorrow. This will ensure that the innovations adopted early by the minority will soon be available to all.

The future mobile will change how you work with colleagues, socialise with friends, purchase goods, and interact with both organisations and objects in the environment around you. It will change the dynamics of situations where previously you had to research ideas in advance of performing particular activities.

But, just like many other technological advances, such as the Internet, it will require people to learn how to adapt to use it safely, securely and well.

A device that enables you to do business anywhere at anytime requires that you exercise discipline about when to actually be ‘at work’. People will have to make new choices, or face the consequences. Not doing so may result in the mobile of the future causing people to flounder instead of flourish.

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