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Better, Faster, Cheaper: Tomorrow's Smartphone

By Pam Baker

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iPhones and Droids may appear to be the alpha and omega of the smartphone revolution, but the upheaval is far from over. And no, the upcoming charge of change doesn't have anything to do with Windows Phone 7 or any other late-to-the-fight contender. But Apple and Google can't just sit back and claim to be the champions forever either.

"The next three years of smartphones will be the continuation of the Swiss army knife approach; smartphones doing everything," said Jason Flick, CEO of Flick Software and YOUiLabs. "Post that three year period, every device will have as great a UI as the iPhone, at even a $35 device cost, so we will see them lose some of the Swiss army knife approach and launch a proliferation of devices like we have never seen before."

The next onslaught of mobile change is likely to come in augmented form-factors, virtualized desktops and, oh yeah, an effort to shed carrier restrictions, which will lead to an effort to shed carriers. Those three points are interrelated and directly attributable to the three flaws of modern day mobile-phonery: the limitations found in screen size, user production, and carrier restrictions.

Screen size limitations will be tackled in both the physical and virtual worlds. In the physical realm, look for phones like Citrix's Nirvana, a concept phone that makes use of mobile virtualization from partner Open Kernel Labs and a standard keyboard and monitor. In essence, the phone acts like a CPU. It can also replace the keyboard and mouse by serving as a touchpad. Plug the phone into the monitor and voila -- full size computing with full size screen and keyboard! Add a virtualized desktop and the phone-as-CPU package is complete.

However, a monitor and keyboard may not always be readily available, although one could easily imagine hotels switching to dual TV monitors. Even so, who wants to queue up at an airport or hotel lobby to use a monitor?

This is why Mozilla's Seabird concept phone is so fascinating with its projector used for user input (as opposed to display use only). Any flat surface instantly becomes a screen, touchpad or keyboard. While there are no current plans to actually produce Seabird, Mozilla has ignited the collective imagination of its own community and the public at large. So far, 2.1 million people viewed the demo in 2D; another 225,000 viewed it in 3D. Since the dual Pico projectors and Bluetooth dongle are already possible, any phone manufacturer could easily produce these. Ditto on the USB connectivity and the wireless charging. Indeed, Palm already offers wireless charging on some of its handsets.

But it is the idea of a truly Open Web phone that sends Seabird's fawning fans into a state of ecstasy. The idea of being able to do anything on a smartphone that one can do on a netbook (or even a desktop at some point) is truly the hook that snares smartphone fans. But such requires a release of carriers' overly restrictive grip, and that's not likely to happen anytime soon given that carriers are struggling to keep up with mobile broadband demand already. Carriers fear becoming dumb pipes but a true Open Web phone requires exactly that -- with on-par or better-than ISP performance. But it will be awhile before carriers can upgrade their legacy systems to handle such a load.

So, what will the next generation of smartphones actually look like? What will you find on carrier shelves in 2012?

"The ARMdroid, a combination of the open source Android and Symbian operating systems coupled with the ubiquity of the ARM processor architecture," said Scott Bibaud, executive vice president and general manager of Mobile Platforms Group at Broadcom. But that's not all Bibaud expects.

Look for cheap smartphones to emerge essentially because the technology will become cheaper and because semiconductor integration will make it all easier. 1080p camcorders, high megapixel cameras with advanced features, and gaming over HDMI will become standard features. WiFi capability will be standard to help offload some of the data traffic from the carrier networks. And, "location-based services will take off as GPS penetration reaches critical mass coupled with infrastructure for 'off deck' (non-carrier controlled) location applications." Many features will expand on mobile functionalities that exist today.

"Think if you could stand on a work site and use augmented reality to look at the blue prints all around you, or had geo fencing that could tap into your SalesForce account and remind you to stop by to see a client you haven't visited in a while," explained Spencer Forrest, CEO of Appiction, an end to end smartphone app and mobile website development company. "For enterprise apps this is only the beginning and they [enterprises] are barely dipping their toe in the waters of what can be accomplished."

But as those features become bigger and better, users will want even more, requiring smartphone manufacturers to revisit the drawing board even on the fundamentals of design.

"As customers use smartphones more like computers, the devices will catch up as best they can, with higher resolution displays for reading smaller text, faster processors for more capabilities, increased memory for more content, and software-level features such as the battery-efficient multi-tasking in Apple's iOS 4.0," said Ben Kazez, CEO of Mobiata, a mobile app developer.

Smartphone manufacturers will move to aid enterprise mobile management to a greater degree. "Look for device manufacturers who want to penetrate the enterprise market to build in more enterprise grade features, like encryption for data and more comprehensive mobility policies to prevent misuse," said BoxTone's Chief Marketing Officer, Brian Reed.

"The open-source nature of the Android platform will no doubt continue to enable new device form functions at a breakneck speed," he added. "Voice recognition systems should become outrageously efficient and effective further eliminating the need for physical keyboards."

So in about another year or two, current iPhones and Droids will look less like a collective mobile industry TKO and more like a ringmaster; still calling the shots but not really delivering the punches. Unless of course, Google and Apple come out of their respective corners still swinging!

A prolific and versatile writer, Pam Baker's published credits include numerous articles in leading publications including, but not limited to: Institutional Investor magazine, CIO.com, NetworkWorld, ComputerWorld, IT World, Linux World, Internet News, E-Commerce Times, LinuxInsider, CIO Today Magazine, NPTech News (nonprofits), MedTech Journal, I Six Sigma magazine, Computer Sweden, NY Times, and Knight-Ridder/McClatchy newspapers. She has also authored several analytical studies on technology and eight books. Baker also wrote and produced an award-winning documentary on paper-making. She is a member of the National Press Club (NPC), Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ), and the Internet Press Guild (IPG).