The Future of Mobile Phones
Use Any Phone on Any Wireless Network
The reason most cell phones are so cheap is that wireless carriers subsidize them so you'll sign a long-term contract. Open access could change the economics of the mobile phone (and mobile data) business dramatically as the walls preventing certain devices from working on certain networks come down. We could also see a rapid proliferation of cell phone models, with smaller companies becoming better able to make headway into formerly closed phone markets.
What is it? Two years is an eternity in the cellular world. The original iPhone was announced, introduced, and discontinued in less than that time, yet carriers routinely ask you to sign up for two-year contracts if you want access to their discounted phones. (It could be worse--in other countries, three years is normal.) Verizon launched the first volley late last year when it promised that "any device, any application" would soon be allowed on its famously closed network. Meanwhile, AT&T and T-Mobile like to note that their GSM networks have long been "open."
When is it coming? Open access is partially here: You can use almost any unlocked GSM handset on AT&T or T-Mobile today, and Verizon Wireless began certifying third-party devices for its network in July (though to date the company has approved only two products). But the future isn't quite so rosy, as Verizon is dragging its feet a bit on the legal requirement that it keep its newly acquired 700-MHz network open to other devices, a mandate that the FCC agreed to after substantial lobbying by Google. Some experts have argued that the FCC provisions aren't wholly enforceable. However, we won't really know how "open" is defined until the new network begins rolling out, a debut slated for 2010.
Your Fingers Do Even More Walking
Last year Microsoft introduced Surface, a table with a built-in monitor and touch screen; many industry watchers have seen it as a bellwether for touch-sensitive computing embedded into every device imaginable. Surface is a neat trick, but the reality of touch devices may be driven by something entirely different and more accessible: the Apple iPhone.
What is it? With the iPhone, "multitouch" technology (which lets you use more than one finger to perform specific actions) reinvented what we knew about the humble touchpad. Tracing a single finger on most touchpads looks positively simian next to some of the tricks you can do with two or more digits. Since the iPhone's launch, multitouch has found its way into numerous mainstream devices, including the Asus Eee PC 900 and a Dell Latitude tablet PC. Now all eyes are turned back to Apple, to see how it will further adapt multitouch (which it has already brought to its laptops' touchpads). Patents that Apple has filed for a multitouch tablet PC have many people expecting the company to dive into this neglected market, finally bringing tablets into the mainstream and possibly sparking explosive growth in the category.
When is it coming? It's not a question of when Multitouch will arrive, but how quickly the trend will grow. Fewer than 200,000 touch-screen devices were shipped in 2006. iSuppli analysts have estimated that a whopping 833 million will be sold in 2013. The real guessing game is figuring out when the old "single-touch" pads become obsolete, possibly taking physical keyboards along with them in many devices.
Cell Phones Are the New Paper
Log in to your airline's Web site. Check in. Print out your boarding pass. Hope you don't lose it. Hand the crumpled pass to a TSA security agent and pray you don't get pulled aside for a pat-down search. When you're ready to fly home, wait in line at the airport because you lacked access to a printer in your hotel room. Can't we come up with a better way?
What is it? The idea of the paperless office has been with us since Bill Gates was in short pants, but no matter how sophisticated your OS or your use of digital files in lieu of printouts might be, they're of no help once you leave your desk. People need printouts of maps, receipts, and instructions when a computer just isn't convenient. PDAs failed to fill that need, so coming to the rescue are their replacements: cell phones.
Applications to eliminate the need for a printout in nearly any situation are flooding the market. Cellfire offers mobile coupons you can pull up on your phone and show to a clerk; Tickets.com now makes digital concert passes available via cell phone through its Tickets@Phoneservice. The final frontier, though, remains the airline boarding pass, which has resisted this next paperless step since the advent of Web-based check-in.
When is it coming? Some cell-phone apps that replace paper are here now (just look at the ones for the iPhone), and even paperless boarding passes are creeping forward. Continental has been experimenting with a cell-phone check-in system that lets you show an encrypted, 2D bar code on your phone to a TSA agent in lieu of a paper boarding pass. The agent scans the bar code with an ordinary scanner, and you're on your way. Introduced at the Houston Intercontinental Airport, the pilot project became permanent earlier this year, and Continental rolled it out in three other airports in 2008. The company promises more airports to come. (Quantas will be doing something similar early next year.)
Where You At? Ask Your Phone, Not Your Friend
GPS is taking off, as phone makers, carriers, and service providers have realized that consumers generally have no idea where they are, ever. A location-based service (LBS) takes raw GPS data that pinpoints your location and enhances this information with additional services, from suggesting nearby restaurants to specifying the whereabouts of your friends.
What is it? LBS was originally envisioned as simply using old-school cell-phone signal triangulation to locate users' whereabouts, but as the chips become more common and more sophisticated, GPS is proving to be not only handy and accurate but also the basis for new services. Many startups have formed around location-based services. Want a date? Never mind who's compatible; who's nearby? MeetMoi can find them. Need to get a dozen people all in one place? Both Whrrl and uLocate's Buddy Beacon tell you where your friends are in real time.
Of course, not everyone is thrilled about LBS: Worries about surreptitious tracking or stalking are commonplace, as is the possibility of a flood of spam messages being delivered to your phone.
When is it coming? LBS is growing fast. The only thing holding it back is the slow uptake of GPS-enabled phones (and carriers' steep fees to activate the function). But with iPhones selling like Ben & Jerry's in July, that's not much of a hurdle to overcome. Expect to see massive adoption of these technologies in 2009 and 2010.
25 Years of Predictions:
Our Greatest Hits
Predicting the future isn't easy. Sometimes PC World has been right on the money. At other times, we've missed it by a mile. Here are three predictions we made that were eerily prescient--and three where we may have been a bit too optimistic.
1983 What we said: "The mouse will bask in the computer world limelight... Like the joystick before it, though, the mouse will fade someday into familiarity."
We hit that one out of the park. Mice are so commonplace that they're practically disposable.
1984 What we said: "Microsoft Windows should have a lasting effect on the entire personal computer industry."
"Lasting" was an understatement. Windows has now amassed for Microsoft total revenues in the tens of billions of dollars and is so ubiquitous and influential that it has been almost perpetually embroiled in one lawsuit or another, usually involving charges of monopoly or of trademark and patent infringements.
1988 What we said:"In the future you'll have this little box containing all your files and programs... It's very likely that eventually people will always carry their data with them."
For most people, that little box is now also their MP3 player or cell phone.
And Biggest Misses
1987 What we said: "When you walk into an office in 1998, the PC will sense your presence, switch itself on, and promptly deliver your overnight e-mail, sorted in order of importance."
When we arrive in our office, the computer ignores us, slowly delivers the overnight e-mail, and puts all the spam on top.
1994 What we said: "Within five years... batteries that last a year, like watch batteries today, will power [PDAs]."
Perhaps our biggest whiff of all time. Not only do these superbatteries not exist (nor are they even remotely in sight), but PDAs are pretty much dead too.
2000 What we said: We wrote about future "computers that pay attention to you, sensing where you are, what you're doing, and even what your vital signs are... Products incorporating this kind of technology...could hit the market within a year."
While many devices now feature location-sensing hardware, such a PC has yet to come to pass. And frankly, we'd be glad to be wrong about this one.