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September 11, 2011 4:59 pm

Smarter, faster and smaller: tomorrow’s phones take shape

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Over the past five years, a series of key events has reshaped the global mobile phone industry and started a new chapter in the history of mobile computing.

These include the launches of Apple’s iconic iPhone in 2007 – with the unveiling of the App Store about a year later – and the first Google Android-based smartphone, the T-Mobile G1, in 2008.

Eighteen months later, in 2010, Apple released the iPad, and slate-style tablet computers joined laptops and smartphones as the defining technologies of the age of the mobile web and personal cloud computing.

Given the pace of change in the computing and communications sectors, the next five years will see equally dramatic advances. In particular, the roll-out of 4G mobile networks based on a technology standard called long-term evolution has just started and promises to deliver super-fast wireless download speeds.

For example, the LTE network being built by Verizon Wireless in the US is already delivering mobile download speeds of between 7 and 12 megabits per second, and these speeds will increase to perhaps 100MBps when networks based on LTE “advanced” begin to appear over the next decade.

Such speeds coupled with the “low latency” (no delay) and efficiency features of LTE will help develop advanced mobile applications, including high-definition video streaming and conferencing, mobile video gaming and real-time desktop-style access to both consumer and business systems.

But delivering these services will also require updated hardware. Touchscreen-based smartphones such as the iPhone and Android-based handsets from manufacturers including Samsung, HTC and Motorola Mobility have quickly replaced an earlier generation of so-called “feature phones”.

Indeed, as ABI Research, the technology market research group, noted in a recent report, touchscreens coupled with higher wireless data speeds can claim much of the credit for the booming success of smartphones.

Phones with touchscreens have gone from 7 per cent of total smartphone sales in 2006 – before the launch of the iPhone – to 75 per cent in 2010.

“Over the next five years, touchscreens will be as pervasive in smartphones as WiFi chip sets are today, reaching 97 per cent of all smartphones by 2016,” ABI Research predicts.

The screen is the point of fulfilment for all that a mobile device promises to deliver to its user, so the impact it can have on its success is unsurprising.

Screen and touch technologies have continued to evolve, and are now shaping the markets for other classes of mobile devices.

Kevin Burden, vice-president of mobile devices at ABI Research, says: “Low-cost capacitive touch controllers that use just a single layer of sensors instead of two – and save as much as 30 per cent on the cost – are opening the market for lower-end feature phones.

E-readers, which are the most fragmented device category in both display and touch technology, now have options that not only enable finger touch, but are also [available] at a cost that could standardise the segment’s displays.”

The microprocessors that power today’s smartphones are evolving too. The single-core processors that powered early smartphones such as the first-generation BlackBerrys have been replaced by dual-core processors running at 1GHz or faster, consolidating the smartphone’s claim to be the next-generation computing platform.

For example, Motorola’s Droid Bionic, launched in the US recently, features a dual 1GHz processor supported by 1Gb of RAM and is designed to run on the Verizon Wireless LTE network.

Other smartphone features being incorporated as standard include touchscreens that use scratch-proof “gorilla glass”, high-resolution rear-facing digital cameras for still and HD video capture, front-facing cameras for mobile video conferencing, and high quantities of on-board RAM coupled with a microSD card slot for capturing digital content and storing applications.

But features such as big screens, fast and always-on networks and processor-intensive tasks, including video playback, are testing the limits of today’s rechargeable battery technology. The result is smartphones that barely make it through the day without needing to be recharged.

One solution is to incorporate larger and more dense batteries capable of storing more power. But since the dominant design trend epitomised by successive generations of the iPhone is to be thinner and lighter, the ability of designers to incorporate larger batteries is limited.

One of the biggest challenges facing both smartphone and tablet PC makers in the future, therefore, will be to minimise power consumption while continuing the search for more efficient – and perhaps more eco-friendly – renewable power sources such as fuel cells and solar. For the moment, however, such breakthroughs seem far off.

What seems more certain is that the number of viable smartphone operating systems will contract, perhaps to as few as three. These are likely to be Google-owned Android, Apple’s iOS and Microsoft’s Windows Phone, which has now been adopted by Nokia, once the smartphone market leader.

Less clear is whether the relatively restrictive application development model pioneered by Apple’s App Store will continue to thrive, or whether it will be usurped by more open web-based technologies such as HTML5, which developers can use to deliver the look and feel of dedicated apps running within browsers on multiple operating systems.

If smartphones and PC tablets follow the same trajectory as PCs, then the days of closed ecosystems could be numbered. In the meantime, however, smartphones are expanding their roles to replace many standalone devices, including digital cameras and camcorders, GPS-based personal navigation devices, portable digital music players and video playback devices.

Similarly, the PC tablet market pioneered by the iPad – and now under assault from a range of Android-based devices – is eating into the sales of low-cost laptops, netbooks and devices such as wall-mounted home automation controls.

While it is likely that some consumers will continue to buy specialist single-function devices such as high-performance digital cameras, the evolution of smartphones will enable many users to carry one device rather than a pocketful of equipment.

For consumers and business users who want to make the smartphone the centre of their digital world, manufacturers such as Motorola are already offering accessories such as docking stations that can turn a Droid Bionic smartphone into a digital media playback centre, a portable presentation device or a fully functioning laptop complete with 11-inch screen and keyboard.

But as designers and manufacturers have discovered in other, non-related markets, one size rarely fits all. The PC tablets, smartphones and other communications devices may share common core features, but ultimately consumers are likely to demand a range of differentiated products that suit not just their lifestyles and work requirements, but also their individual personalities.

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