The mobile phone is a device that has truly revolutionized our world. From simply letting us make calls on the move, it has evolved into an “anything, anywhere” machine that practically runs our lives for us. Its cultural impact has also been unprecedented, bringing more of the world’s population online and making technology integral to the lives of young and old, rich and poor.
Let’s face it, making phone calls is just one thing we use them for now – we manage our work and social lives, shop, book holidays, and use them to remote control our smart devices, from TVs and refrigerators to cars and drones. Really, they’re our personal data devices, both collecting and providing us with information in order to make our lives more convenient in a countless number of ways. They are also our most accessible interface points with the digital world and the wealth of data-driven convenience and experience it offers.
It’s these enabling functions that smartphone (and other device) manufacturers entice us with these days, when they issue their annual upgrades offering new features and functionality. But how much further can the current form be pushed? Phones with the “slate” form factor have been the de-facto standard since the release of the first iPhone, nearly a decade and a half ago. Other smart devices, including watches and eyewear, have emerged but aren’t yet ready to challenge the phone’s position as the one piece of tech that everyone has to have with them at all times. This could change, however, as manufacturers break new grounds in display and user-interface design.
Your phone probably already makes use of AI in a great number of functions, from its voice assistant to enhancing the pictures taken with the camera, and stabilizing the sound quality during your conversations. Going forward, we can expect this to become a lot more sophisticated. As most of us carry our phones 24/7, they are better placed than any other device to learn about everything we do and become even more useful. As the AI algorithms underpinning this become more sophisticated and are trained on more data, expect them to become better at reminding us to do things that we haven’t even told them we want to be reminded about, and to schedule appointments for us without being specifically told to do so. Our interactions with them will also become more conversational – Google reports that the number of us using our voices, rather than fingertips, to control our devices is increasing every year. The powerful personal computers that we carry around will take on many of our mundane day-to-day tasks, freeing us to concentrate on activities that require human input, such as creative, strategic, and imaginative jobs.
Phones are becoming increasingly powerful – the latest generation of Snapdragon mobile processors unveiled by Qualcomm this year are capable of carrying out 32 trillion operations per second. This means there will be fewer and fewer occasions where we feel the need to sit down at a desktop or laptop computer. Compute-heavy workloads such as video editing and running complex mathematical simulations will increasingly be viable on our pocket-sized devices.
One of the limiting factors to the phone format, of course, is the size of the screen – most people don’t want to work or watch long movies on a tiny display. A new generation of headsets or “holographic” displays is likely to solve this problem – the NxtWear G, shown at Mobile World Congress this year, gives the impression of watching a 140-inch OLED display and weighs just 100g.
Moving past the slate
As mentioned, "slate" form phones have been standard for a good while now because the screen can be as large as the device, and all of the UI (User Interface) functionality can be accessed on a touchscreen. Nothing lasts forever, though, and manufacturers are all looking towards the next big thing. Some are focusing on "bendy" screens that can be folded up – offering more screen real estate without meaning the device becomes too large to fit in your pocket. Samsung, Huawei, and Motorola all offer phones with this feature, and LG has shown off an incredible “rollable” phone that expands in your hands from a phone to a tablet. Although their high price means they haven’t yet become mainstream propositions for most of us, this may change as production costs fall.
Cutting the cord
With Bluetooth taking over as the standard for connecting headsets and other devices, charging is the only reason many of us still have for plugging a wire into our phones. Wireless charging exists, of course, but has typically been too slow to be truly useful. That’s changing quickly, though – the Xiaomi Mi 11 Ultra is capable of charging wirelessly at 67W, delivering a full charge in 40 minutes (faster than many phones charge with a cable!)
Wireless charging also currently requires that phones are positioned exactly on a charging surface so that energy can transfer efficiently between the electromagnetic coils. More sophisticated charging pads are being developed by companies such as Aira, which means it’s less likely you’ll wake up to a dead battery simply because you didn’t put your phone in exactly the right position.
Solar and kinetic options for phone charging are also being explored by some manufacturers. Although these are unlikely to become mainstream any time soon, as they take much longer than charging from direct current, they can be useful if you’re camping somewhere sunny. Going forward, this functionality may be incorporated by manufacturers into some specialist handsets, reducing the need to rely on bulky external charging devices.
Further ahead, companies are already working through the challenges of delivering truly wireless charging, where a phone doesn’t even need to be in contact with the charger. Companies including Powercast are already offering an RF charging solution where energy is transmitted via radio waves that are converted to DC current by the phone's antenna.
The end of phones?
Of course, there’s every chance that we won’t be using phones at all in the not-so-distant future – or at least, we won’t be using devices that we call phones. After all, making phone calls is an increasingly small element of what we do with them. Watches and other wearables - combined with the technology we’ve looked at here like holographic or rollout screens – could mean the end of devices we carry around in our pockets. This will happen when other form factors become a more convenient and enabling first point-of-contact between us and the digital domain.
Looking even further ahead, there's the possibility that sub-dermal implants remove the need to carry anything with us at all. Pairing them with neural interface technology that lets us control them with our thoughts will remove yet another barrier between ourselves and the digital domain. This may seem very far-fetched and perhaps not entirely pleasant to everybody, but it’s an area where a lot of research is carried out, and many believe it will play a part in our future. Due to the regulatory burdens of offering it commercially, implanting chips in the human body largely began as a hobbyist activity carried out among extreme tech aficionados, known as biohacking. Recently, commercial options have started to appear, though, including Impli, which allows people to carry their medical history data with them, and Bioteq which creates solutions including assistive implanted technology for disabled people. There’s no reason that communication functionality won’t be available in this way at some point. And as for neural control, companies including Neurable, Facebook, and Neuralink are creating brain interfacing technologies that allow us to control technology with our thoughts.
Phones have achieved the ubiquitous position they hold in society simply because they are the most friction-free access point to the virtual domain that we’ve developed so far. iPhones and devices from other manufacturers that adopted the “slate” form have served us well, but by no means have we reached the end of the road in terms of mobile phone evolution. The phones of the future are likely to be as different from the phones of today, as an iPhone is from the rotary dial phones of just a few decades ago!