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Summary:

The phone of the the not-so-distant future will be better — but not much bigger — than today’s devices. Unlike many of today’s phones, it won’t sport a keyboard, will have more radios, and will be even better able to function as a portable computer.

Curious what your future phone will look like? OK, so this isn’t some sleek device that interacts with a chip wired into your ear canal, but rather your phone two or three years into the future, which is slightly less visionary, but still pretty cool. I chose the features for this phone based on what I know chipmakers are doing and betting on, but if any of you have a different vision, feel free to lay it out. This is a plausible gadget, but certainly not the only phone.

I also talked to Jeff Brown, a principal analyst at Portelligent, to get a sense of how feasible some of this stuff is, as well as with my colleague Kevin over at jkOnTheRun, who offered up some good ideas around intelligent radio management software and an integrated port for docking the phone. Brown acted as my naysayer when it came to a feature’s drain on the battery. Since folks don’t want to carry a device much larger than an iPhone, battery life is the biggest limitation for most of these features. But if wireless power gets beyond the changing pad stage, all bets are off.

Video: The future phone is going to require multiple ways of moving all the video we want to put on the device, onto a bigger display. For that reason, I think future phones will have an HDMI port and could use future iterations of Bluetooth for video transfer. Brown said that pico projectors that display the handset’s screen onto a wall (which I had hoped to see on future phones) will have to reduce their drain on the battery if they want to make it as a standard feature. I’d also like a second camera in addition to the 8-12-megapixel camera (with digital zoom!) on the back. The secondary camera, which is common in Europe and Japan, would be on the front of the phone and used for video calls.

UI: Capacitive touchscreens like the iPhone offers will rule on the high end, although feature phones will have resistive as well. I think the stand-alone QWERTY keyboard on most smartphones will be gone (and I love my QWERTY) to be replaced with software-based touch keyboards that use haptics to offer a tactile sense of having a keyboard.

Radios: Standard 3G and 4G radios will be on the phone (and they’ll have multiple antennas, too), but all phones will have GPS radios for location and the aforementioned Bluetooth. Wi-Fi will be a common element, and thanks to upcoming chips like Atheros’ tiny, new 802.11n Wi-Fi chip, the Wi-Fi will be fast without taking up valuable space and using up so much power.

Ports: MicroUSB for charging as well as an HDMI port and a headphone jack will all be standard. I like Kevin’s idea of an integrated docking port as my phone gets powerful enough to be the “brains” of a computer system that’s popped onto various keyboard, screen and mouse setups. This allows someone to carry all of her data on the phone and not have to sync it to a companion computer at home or work.

I left off keyboards, near-field communication chips, mobile television and widespread built-in memory capacity that exceeds 32GB simply because I don’t believe future phones will have them, but now I’m eager to hear what you guys think.

By Stacey Higginbotham

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  1. Hi Stacey,

    Very good look at the future phone from a features point of view. However, I think we can take it a step further. This is actually a conversation we’ve been having here in Beijing for a while.

    I think in the next 5 to 10 years, the phone and the computer will merge. You won’t have a PC at home and you won’t have a laptop at work. You’ll have a phone and docks at your different work spaces. You are home, you dock your phone and the OS is replicated on to a bigger screen. You leave your house, you take your phone with you. You go to work, you dock your phone and work on your work station. Everywhere else, you still have the same apps and functions as you would on a PC environment, but optimized for a handheld screen.

    I think over time, the hardware features will standardize, just as the PC and laptop has. Maybe along the same lines as you describe.

    Finally, I think everything we have will be stored on the cloud. The phone will be the thin client to access all of that. I think in 10 years or so, high speed mobile Internet will be so ubiquitous, that we can have that kind of capability where the phone is the access point to the cloud and can provide create, read, edit, delete abilities either on its native screen or on a docked concept, but all of your data will be stored on the cloud, so memory won’t be as big of an issue. Media, documents, news, etc, will all be cloud based.

    One day, we’ll look back on the whole PC and localized memory thing and say to ourselves, “Wow, remember those days?”

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  2. Integrated 802.15.4 radio so that the phone can function as a RF4CE remote. RF4CE remotes are coming out next year on mainstream TVs. RF4CE lets you hide the amp/cable box in a cabinet since the RF penetrates. It is a tiny amount of silicon to add this.

    Bluetooth remotes never caught on.

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  3. Looks like a believable sketch, but it covers mostly the hardware part only, with some hints on services, and barely anything on software.

    What I do miss a bit is the consumer perspective. Will consumers still lug around multiple devices (music players, camera, laptop/netbook, ..)? Or will phones become your new digital identity that you can use (for all things digital) while on-the-go and even dock into “AV furniture” to connect to the cloud?

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    1. Cheese, that’s coming. The goal here was to focus on hardware.

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    2. Why do the most useful phones always have to look so ugly?

      I think it varies for many users. I personally don’t put any music on my cell phone because I like to use my iPod when I hit the gym.

      I’m mostly interested in how they would advertise this seemingly revolutionary device!

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  4. Displaying video on a larger screen is great and all, but why rule out a full 1080p screen on the phone itself? Sure, the pixels would be really, really tiny, but as long as text and icons are scaled up appropriately, there’s really no downside. Especially since you can bring it as close to your face as you want; the detail would not go to waste.

    It may not be technologically feasible right now, but we’re talking about the phone of the future, right?

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  5. At the technical museum close to my home there are videophones from the 80s. Why, in the face of repeated consumer disinterest, people insist on predicting and launching video call capabilities is beyond me.

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  6. I have been longing for a modular system for years. This would use the powerful smartphone as the core module, containing processor, memory and all user documents. It could then be plugged into a smartbook, extending the display and keyboard into a full notebook.

    http://jkontherun.com/2009/02/24/is-it-time-for-an-android-netbook-smartphone-modular-system/

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  7. Surely it would be magnetic induction charging and all bluetooth (or equivalent connectivity, so wouldn’t need holes for wires!

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    1. I still thinks magnetic induction as it stands today and in the near future isn’t really compelling enough to add as a standard feature. As long as we’re talking charging pads, I’m not sold.

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  8. I dare to differ.
    Firstly, I don’t want a brick and any vendor will agree the design and form factor sells. So no ports but BT 3.0 or higher, which supports 802.11, so two birds, one stone, right?
    Secondly, it’s about mobile, right…so I don’t want to circle around my docking station. In other words, battery life matters. Since the form factor in previous point, the power consumption must be efficient. Do you need HD playback on your 3.7″ screen, I mean, are you kidding?

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  9. err, forgot something. It’s about 2010, so OLED will work. Did I mention form factor and power consumption?

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    1. I like OLED, but I think that getting HD video off the phone in a power efficient manner will make the HDMI port worth it. Resolution sells, so I believe in HD even on tiny screens. But bluetooth 3.0 is cool and I don’t have a monopoly on vision. I appreciate yours.

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      1. Well, I should have put it in more precise way. Sure, HD is a must these days so “your next phone” should be capable of recording HD vids as well. However HD playback is pointless unless you want just check out what you’ve just captured. I don’t think you’re going to sit still staring at your 3 point something inches screen to watch full length movie, not to mention draining your battery. OK, you can suggest streaming the vid on your plasma through a HDMI port while powered from wall socket but when you buy your next phone, your next plasma will be capable to decode AVCHD or whatever vid coding. SD card slot is even better option in that regard when it comes to power consumption. To sum it up, yes to HD vid recording, no to resource hungry HD playback.
        Thanks Stacy for the fruitful discussion.

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  10. Nokia’s been providing front-facing cameras for more than a couple of years now, and with Nokia X6’s release just around the corner, the future is sooner than one might think. Also, if it weren’t for the resistive touchscreen, Nokia’s N97/5800 would’ve covered all bases since there is an included video-out cable that would allow you to plug it into a TV. HDMI is expensive, and this seems to be the more practical approach. It would also be better to increase the size of the camera’s sensor instead of just increasing the number of pixels it can cram into its present one.

    Anyway, good article. Thanks.

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