What are our phones going to look like in 10 years time; see-through displays, Star Trek-style tricorders? Ton Brand from the GSM Alliance – the organisation that promotes standardisation between mobile networks – has a pretty good idea.
As programme director of Embedded Mobile, Brand is at the forefront of smartphone and tablet technology, constantly guessing the way the market will head in order to help create a better trade and consumer experience. With MWC 2012 just around the corner, we asked him what he saw as the future of mobile phones and just what we might find in our hands not just at the end of this year but in years to come.
“The mobile operator community is conventional. 99.9 per cent of their turnover, up until about three years ago, was purely consumer handset driven. From a growth point of view, now, they’re lucky if they get maybe 110 per cent but that is it. They can’t grow any further.”
The point Brand makes is one of saturation and it’s this commercial problem that has so far shaped the pressure for smartphone advancement. Operators have needed to look for new ways to sell devices to consumers who already own a mobile phone. So, to expand, networks have had to look into different ways of tempting them, be it with new devices outside of the smartphone or a rapidly sped up tech rollout in hardware that’ll have you itching to upgrade the mobile you already own. For Brand, whereas until recently it’s been all about the former, the answer may now lie with the latter, with tablets, dongles and data plans the key to expansion.
“Nothing is going to happen in a given location anymore; you have things happening in a car, in a home, you’ve also got connectivity in education.”
The problem is that this has created a slightly confusing environment for the consumer; a burden of choice where it is difficult to pick up any piece of communications hardware without feeling buyer’s remorse. Staying on the cutting-edge can only occur for a few months before your shiny new phone or tablet is replaced by something better, let alone if you made a “poor choice” to begin with.
“Choice is always good for the consumer, provided it isn’t confusing. I think a lot of people, when Android came around the corner, thought that there were going to be three platforms.
“There is no single Android platform,” says Brand, referring to the different “skinning” each manufacturer applies. “More standardisation would be better.”
So, what of the public’s need for that cutting edge and is it something realistic and sustainable any more? Consumers are becoming extremely demanding about what sort of hardware they are given access to and tech jargon, like the “Plus” in Samsung’s Super AMOLED screen in the Galaxy S II, for example, seems as much a way to get one up on owners of the original, than to get more enjoyment from the handset.
“We all want very, very good touchscreens” says Brand. “In two years time AMOLED will be surpassed by something better. I don’t think this will slow down either, the only thing that could is how quickly we miniaturise and how quickly battery power can keep up with demand.
“It’s the same as what we saw with computers. There is more computing power and that means we want to do more, and while we are doing more we expect more, so that is how it evolves.”
Brand’s point is that consumers are in danger of getting into a situation of over-demand where the want for new technology cannot match the amount of power required and, more importantly, the cost, something which current rumours surrounding the iPad 3 reveal. A better screen means bigger batteries which then adds a 30 per cent production cost to the device, which is then turned back round to consumers. Add in the desire for LTE and it looks like the future for overnight phone charging is bleak, as is even our chance of affording it.
Japan already implements a system where you can give your handset some juice in train stations and corner shops, mostly out of the increased pressure all its smartphone tech has put on phone power, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that the likes of 4G technologies will push those in the West over the same precipice quite yet.
“The market adoption rate of rollout of LTE is going to be a lot slower,” predicts Brand. “Networks will focus their LTE deployments in urban areas because that is where they need the capacity.”
The final major change Brand expects to see with our smartphones and tablets in the coming years is the way they are used in education. Coming off the back of Apple’s highly ambitious iBooks 2 launch and its dealings with major education publishers in the US, the tablet could become a new way to teach.
“Tablets in general are going to dominate the way education is rolled out. There are going to be winners – it could be Apple, it could be Android.”
“If you look at it from a developing market point of view, it’s going to take years for it to trickle down into developing markets. That’s where we are going to rely on very basic methods; notebooks with mobile connectivity, SMS type services, feature phones.”
If schools’ relations with tablets were to truly take off, we expect they would remain the preserve of only the wealthiest establishments for a good while. The alternative is to do what Android has done with the smartphone market and make decent enough technology highly affordable.
“Somebody is going to come up with a cheap Android tablet and win the education battle.”
So the moral of the story? If we don’t take care to reign in our insatiable thirst for cutting edge technology, the smartphone we end up with in a few years time might not make it through the day on its own battery and even if it did, it would cost far too much to realistically own it. Whether it’s the first £1,000 mainstream smartphone or the mobile that needs a full charge once an hour that slows us down, only time can tell.