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Wild Speculation – What’s Next in Mobile

  • Apple needs to step up
  • Microsoft and Google stepping up
  • Looking at smartphones as central work and play hubs
Written by Adam Wajnberg

The last year has been a wild one for mobiles. In 2007, the situation was clear – most phones were Nokia. Some people liked their Sony Ericssons. A whole bunch of people had the Motorola RAZR, but that was it from Motorola. Samsung was creeping up. LG had a few fancy phones. Business people used a BlackBerry, or sweated their way through Windows Mobile on an HTC handset.

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                     the future of mobile phones


Then the iPhone scattered everyone like duckpins, and the next 5 years were spent playing catch up. Nokia is in the wilderness. Motorola eventually had to sell to Google. LG quietly backed away. Sony decoupled from Ericsson and now make the best phones no-one would ever buy. HTC soared on Google’s Android platform, before Samsung leapfrogged over them. BlackBerry are talked of in the past tense, like they’re already dead. And Apple went on to overtake Microsoft as the world’s biggest tech firm, and now goes back and forth with ExxonMobil as the world’s biggest company.

Apple didn’t sit on their hands. They created the tablet market out of thin air with the iPad, which helped kill the ‘netbook’ market. They finished that off with the MacBook Air, which also created the ‘Ultrabook’ market (high powered, thin profile laptops). They expanded their share of the wider desktop/laptop market from 5% to over 10%, even as they’ve been slowly killing that market anyway. They’re the world’s most profitable retailer, earning twice as much per square foot as Tiffany’s, their runner up.

But over the last 12 months, things have been changing. Apple have always been jerks when it comes to pestering the legal system over patent battles. But they’re acting possessed right now; their battles against Android might have a tiny bit of justification (Android certainly looks and acts very similar to iOS, with little to distinguish it) but it could be argued that Apple is being anti-competitive. Credit where credit is due, but Apple has been in the papers of late for their legal shenanigans far more than for any great products. The late Steve Jobs embodied this aggressive legal attitude – but he also made a point that ‘Great Artists Ship’. Apple haven’t released anything truly revolutionary in nearly two years. The pressure’s on.

Meanwhile, Samsung have lobbed silo after silo at the market, and they’ve made a very significant dent. Their Galaxy line is the only real blockbuster that can stand next to Apple, even if they make far less money from it. And even though their tactic of releasing a billion handsets a year is annoying (and HTC are worse), it does help them look friendlier and more customer oriented. They’re hustling; Apple is stalling.

Microsoft, once the Evil Empire to Apple’s gang of plucky upstarts, have reminded people that they’re also a company of clever geniuses. Their attempts to crack the Apple-Android blockade have stumbled, but their pipeline of products (including Windows 8, Windows Surface and Windows Phone 8) look very promising, and distinctly better than Android – if not exceeding Apple’s own lineup.


                           apple vs android data


As for Google, and their Android mobile OS platform…they’re plugging along. Google is still a company that has one extremely profitable business (online advertising) and dozens of projects being developed by some of the best minds in the world. Android is essentially their most promising thing to make money – and it does make money for Google – but it’s still not quite there yet. People who buy an iPhone get a great handset and know the value too of the App Store and iTunes. Many people who buy an Android are buying a Samsung, or an HTC. They don’t know or care about using Google Play (their app store). So Google really makes no money there. Meanwhile, their other attempts at making products are being met with bored indifference (Nexus Q? Google TV? Bueller?)

                         Short Term – iPhone X

                                  iphone 5


Only a fool would suggest that Apple should be scared right now. They make too much money to care about the competition, and their product still meets the demands of the market better than any other. But those others are getting close. If Apple wants to keep the momentum going, their next phone has to be a big, big deal. Putting in a 12MP camera, NFC, stronger Wi-Fi and a bigger screen merely brings them in line with Sony. Their operating system is still far and away better than the competition, and they have a locked in 5 year old user base that aren’t necessarily ready to jump. iOS 6, due for release in October, looks like a great update. UP. DATE.

So really, in the short term, it’s Apple who need to step up. Their current momentum could run out in the next 12 months. It happened to BlackBerry, which was in the same position of being unassailable and locked in with business users – who are even less flitting when it comes to technology than the average consumer.

                        Medium Term – Materials


The current ‘shiny black rectangle’ era needs to evolve, because the ‘shiny’ part of that equation is highly breakable, even when it’s made of Corning’s Gorilla Glass. Apple have put design at the forefront, which has paid dividends; all someone has to do now is find a way to include tougher, more durable materials. That means silicon, rubber and carbon fibre. Motorola tried this with their waterproofed, Kevlar-backed RAZR. It didn’t work, but that shouldn’t stop other innovation. Everyone’s waiting to see what Apple will do with Liquidmetal, a space age material that they hold the exclusive rights to utilize for mobile technology. Liquidmetal is an ultra tough alloy that is formed like a glass at the molecular level, rather than as a crystal structure as most metals are. Glass is far harder than steel (though more brittle), and steel is far more durable, if that makes sense. Combining the best properties of both should reveal shiny, unbreakable gadgets that don’t scratch – but making 100 million of them with a new, hard to manufacture material might be too much even for Apple.

HTC use polycarbonate plastic in their One X, which has made it nice to hold and looks great. But it’s less recyclable than aluminium. Bamboo bodies have been included in some niche products, but it will take a major push from a manufacturer to get big amounts of people into that. RIM has always and continue to use leather, rubber and silicon to make their lousy products a pleasure to hold – but no-one cares.

Someone will need to make a great phone that is completely recyclable, extremely durable, uses little power and looks fantastic. Get on to it, nerds!

   Long Term – We Don’t Need No Stinking Phones

                google glasses

Google has been showing off prototypes of Google Glasses for a couple of weeks now, and they look completely ridiculous – but hey, so does holding up a slab of plastic to your ear when placed out of context. The idea of moving communications to Heads-Up Displays (HUD) is coming closer and closer – and Apple filed their own patent this week for their own take on this idea. Right now, it’s just a little too cold and silly looking for most people to get their heads around, in and up inside of – but that doesn’t mean it isn’t the next logical step in the evolution of this technology.

Or is it? I’ve often thought that the success of the mobile phone has as much to do with what it is as what it does. It’s a tool, held in the hand, roughly the size of a hand axe. I honestly believe this triggers a very primitive response in humans. Wallets, keys, swiss army knives, multitools, lighters – and even a pack of cigarettes – there’s just something innately human about having a hand held, sophisticated device in the hand.

Really, smartphones are evolutions of the computer, not of the mobile phone. With phones packing several computing cores (unheard of even in desktops just a few years ago), we’re nearing a point where your phone is your computer. Operating systems are merging to desktop/mobile equivalency with Windows 8, and to a lesser extent with Apple OS 10.8 Mountain Lion.

So here’s a scenario from a few years into the future.

-    You have your ‘phone’ in your pocket. Calls and music are handled by stereo Bluetooth headphones, vastly smaller and with better audio fidelity than current models. You wear glasses that pop up a non-intrusive HUD when you send a voice command for weather or other info. Video and Web are available, but unpopular – driving with it is obviously dangerous, and watching video on private HUD on public transport recalls too many bad sci-fi movies where everyone in the future is a mindless idiot.

-    When you get to work, you tell the phone to change profile to office.

-    You pair your computer to a monitor using AirPlay (or similar software).

-    Your wireless, solar powered keyboard and mouse will pair automatically to your phone when in range. Other peripherals used by architects, graphic artists, engineers and the like can also be paired. Essentially, the phone is acting as a PC.

-    The phone can run full applications like we do know, thank to its multi core, Intel processor.

-    Your phone is lost/stolen/left at home/not working. The office has numerous spares. Your saved work and profile are all saved to the cloud or server backup; you get a work spare and use that until your own unit is replaced.

-    When you get home, you switch the profile to HOME – MIX AV AND BROWSING. The phone outputs to your flatscreen, showing a mix of web pages and online TV in separate windows.

-    Dinner time! Switch profile to BACKGROUND MUSIC, PLAYLIST ‘BACKGROUND’ 20% VOLUME.

It’s easy to suggest that this is all eye-rolling fantasy, except for the fact that all of this technology exists in bits and pieces, right now. To suggest that it won’t go in this direction, just because there’s no elegant, simple way to make all this work in harmony yet, is shortsighted. That’s what the competition did when it was suggested that Apple was going to release a capacitative touch screen mobile phone with a 3.5 inch screen in 2007. Too Big! It’ll run out of battery in 20 minutes! People like hardware buttons!

So it’s encouraging to see that everyone is working hard to bring all of this home in the next decade or so. Then we can work on other things, like finally making hoverboards a reality.


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