The phone of the future?

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I have seen the mobile phone of the future. And it looks much like, er, a phone. At least that is what the industry’s leading handset designers have predicted as I tried to gain a glimpse of mobile communications several years from now.

“The mobile phone is probably going to be a hand-held for the near future,” says Rikko Sakaguchi, senior vice president for product and application planning at phone maker Sony Ericsson.

Chang Ma, vice president of marketing for LG Electronics’ mobile division, agrees: “I don’t see a big change in the basic form factor, though size and shape will be areas of innovation,” he predicts. Also likely is greater emphasis on specific features, such as music or television. “We’ll move away from one-size-fits-all phones. The form will be in keeping with the main experience the user wants to have,” says Ralph Eric Kunz, vice president for multimedia experiences at Nokia.

But another view is that the phone could move behind the scenes. Rather than using the handset as a way to interact with services, it could become a wireless hub hidden in a pocket or bag, connecting via Bluetooth to input devices such as headsets and keyboards, to wall-mounted monitors and speakers, as well as to gaming consoles, remote storage and other devices that need internet access. Sanyo is already moving in this direction.

Music, cameras and TV are likely to remain important features, though no one is sure what will come next. “It is hard to call which things will be important to people over time,” says Ed Colligan, chief executive of Palm.

Mike Short, CTO of operator O2, believes that fields such as health, education and transport will drive development.

And Dave Tansley, telecommunications partner at Deloitte, worries that phones may overwhelm users. “A growing gulf is likely to emerge between what communications functionality is offered and what is actually used. Every new feature may increase complexity and reduce reliability. Users may find it harder to access core applications such as voice calling and messaging.”

Integration of the mobile phone with other devices in the office or home will surely increase. “People want to use mobile devices with the rest of things in their lives,” says Scott Horn, marketing vice president for mobile devices at Microsoft.

Mr Sakaguchi adds: “Let’s try to make a seamless life, not seamless connectivity between devices.” This, he says, is not a technical challenge but one of mentality.

But device convergence could also become a threat to mobile phone makers. “There’s a risk we will get to an era where an MP3 player or a TV has a phone feature, and not the other way around,” warns LG’s Mr Ma.

With time, consumers’ buying choices will centre on what the industry is now calling “experiences”, rather than specific features or services. For instance, many phones will focus on the “explore” experience, that emphasises web search, location-based services and navigation, says Nokia’s Mr Kunz. A phone optimised for this experience might have a large screen but the more significant changes would probably be in the user interface, such as adding a search box in most screen views, he says.

Mr Sakaguchi believes the greatest changes will emerge as mobile communications are integrated with the web: “The mobile terminal will become a web communications companion. This will be much bigger than multimedia.”

He explains: “The consumer has driven what is happening on the web, even without knowing how to do it. The mobile phone industry, on the other hand, is very platform dependent, focused on the silicon, on the codec – all this has been a limitation in the mindset.” When his eight-year-old son asked why photos he took with his camera phone could not instantly appear on his blog site, he discussed it with his engineers, who said it was technically feasible but they were wary as it meant talking to companies such as Google. Well, then go talk to Google, he told them.

But the phone of the future will also face challenges, some of which are far from resolved.

A likely limitation for future devices will be battery life. “We forget that Moore’s Law does not apply to batteries,” says David Wood, executive vice president of research at Symbian. Better software management will surely improve battery life but some companies are beginning to look at fuel cells to power devices.

Many in the industry believe that mobile phones will become like clothing, changed throughout the day to best suit the task or the mood. But this proliferation of devices could become a nightmare for users unless their identity and preferences span across the terminals. “They will need to port across the spirit of the phone,” says Mr Wood. “The network can already do this. SIMs will be gone in a few years,” he adds.

Whatever the phone of the future looks like and whatever it does, people’s emotional attachment is likely to remain as strong as it is today. Or perhaps it will grow as mobile devices become more intimately integrated with lives.

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