Twenty years ago nobody dreamed that cellular phones would become the hub around which our growingly data-centric society would revolve. Nor that they would morph into minicomputers a hundred times more powerful than then-current state of the art mainframe computers. Nor that they would permit instantaneous, global communication.
Now people take this march of progress for granted, and have adopted the technologies and the changes they have wrought in our daily lives without pausing to reflect on the sheer marvel of the speed and capabilities that were still in the realm of science fiction two decades ago.
The only constant in technological growth was that the speed of said growth was ever-increasing, and that each year, at each new product introduction, cell phones and other Internet-connected devices would not only be faster and more efficient than their predecessors, but that they would unveil new capabilities as well.
So now that the convergence of phones and computers has occurred, and tablets fit into niches left in the gaps, where do we go from here? What can we expect in the way of near-term technologies being developed for cell phones and related devices?
The waiting game
Here are some examples being deployed as you read this. Some are further along than others. Some are being incorporated into new phones for immediate release; others in one to two years. Often, the technology is already in your new phone; it is just waiting for the rest of the world to implement them.
Among those developed and deployed in the most recent phones, but which remain underutilized, are:
- Near Field Communication, in Android phones, and iBeacon in iPhones. The first, NFC, allows you to tap your phone to an electronic ticket taker or cash register and pay for the transaction via Google Wallet or other smart wallets. Apple’s iBeacon, however, uses Bluetooth 4.0 to tap into similarly equipped location-based services, which transmit coupons and information on sales when your presence is detected in-store, or near a relevant product, and offers you choices on how to pay for the item.
- iBeacon systems have been adopted by 20 Major League Baseball stadiums and are ready for use now. NFC is currently installed on a much larger number of phones, given Android’s lead in market share, possesses iBeacon’s functionality, and will likely win out in the future.
- Digital health monitoring sensors. Though these are now available in wrist bands, smart watches and clip-on devices such as the Fitbit, they will most likely find a home in your clothing, your Google Glass, or your socks, such as the Sensoria smart sock. Athos, a company which manufactures work-out gear, is currently offering a line of work-out clothing incorporating a range of bio-sensors, data from which is transmitted to your phone, then, if necessary, via the Internet to your doctor’s or other health care provider.
- 4G LTE Advanced. Also called LTE Wideband or LTE-A, is a new wireless Internet protocol capable of reaching speeds up to 20 times faster than current 4G LTE cell connections and six times faster than standard wired connections. Not only would this bump-up in speed be used by phones, it could replace wired home Internet service. It has already been introduced in several places around the world, but don’t expect it to become a global standard in less than five years, as it will face government regulatory challenges initiated by the huge domestic cable and wireless providers, who stand to lose everything unless they adopt the new technology and make it widely available.
- Security via biometrics. Passwords and screen gesture security measures on your phone will be replaced with fingerprint, voice analysis, facial recognition and optical scanning. We’ve seen some of these adopted by iPhones and some Android devices, but they soon will become standards across the entire range of mobile devices.
- Inductive wireless charging. Again, there are a few phones that employ wireless charging, but this method will soon become the norm, eliminating the need for plug-in chargers. One merely lays a device on an AC-connected mat, and it recharges. There is heated competition in this area already, between Qi, which is the brand name for the Wireless Power Consortium, and Powermat, backed by battery giant Duracell, which dominates the Power Matters Alliance. Whichever emerges as the clear winner, and my money is on Qi, which is already in the lead commercially, the convenience factor remains the same, and we’ll soon say goodbye to wired chargers and the rat’s nest of wall chargers.
- Passpoint WiFi. This technology promises to be a real game changer, as it will be capable of delivering ever-present, cellular-like WiFi connections by 2016. The fast connection service allows you to remain connected to WiFi wherever you are. Just as with any standard mass connectivity cellular provider, you can expect regulatory challenges to be filed with the government.
- Augmented reality. Simply hold your device’s camera on a city street, and computer generated visual data appears providing relevant information, such as the nearest restaurants, local historic landmarks or WiFi hot spots. There are currently several augmented reality apps on both iPhones and Android phones. The only limitations to widespread adoption are the currently limited recognition accuracy of current phones. Much work is being done now, as of this writing, to overcome this obstacle, and expect it to become standard in most phones within a year or two.
- Flexible screens. One’s phone may provide a large screen for viewing video and playing games, then folded down to fit inside a pocket. The screen will be paper thin, made possible by the technology known as Organic Light-Emitting Diode (OLED). Several phones already make use of OLED screens, which are capable of producing very high resolution while consuming relatively small amounts of battery power, compared to standard Liquid Crystal Displays (LCD).
Phone is the hub
These new technologies promise much, and they all center on smartphones as their platforms.
Think back 20 years to the pre-smartphone days, and the breathtaking advances in technology since then. And bear in mind that the speed of technological change is not incremental; it is, rather, exponential. These changes outlined above are merely those already workable and in most cases ready for roll out. But this does not rule out a game changing discovery or technological advance someone may be working on in their garage at this moment.
It’s impossible to guess at the changes in technology over the next 20 years, but rest assured that they will be as sweeping, and as unimaginable, as the those of the past 20 years.
(Correction and update. In my article on cloud computing, the following facts concerning one cloud provider, MediaFire, should be noted. A free account of up to 50 gigabytes is provided. Paid accounts give users one terabyte of cloud storage, for $2.50 a month. The company abandoned upload size limitations one year ago. MediaFire has revamped its homepage in January.–P.C.)
Paul Croke, former newspaper editor and longtime Washington DC area freelance writer, has loved gadgets and consumer electronics since he saw his first Dick Tracy watch. He writes about consumer technology.