Future of innovation: Readers' predictions about mobile gadgets.

Where technology is going.
March 23 2011 7:10 AM

Tablets for All!

Your predictions on the future of mobile gadgets.

Illustration by Robert Neubecker. Click image to expand.

Last week, in the first of a series of articles about the future of technology, I looked at how mobile gadgets will evolve over the next five years. I predicted that by 2016 most of us would use two main mobile devices—a tablet computer and a smartphone. These computers won't look very different from today's iPhones and iPads—they'll just be thinner and lighter—but I believe that we'll interact with them in a number of new ways. For one thing, we'll speak to them instead of just typing on them. I also argued that the devices would alter our relationship with the physical world and with other people. As more people get smartphones and tablets, they'll become more useful, and eventually we'll find them irresistible.

I also asked readers to tell me how they think mobile gadgets will change. While several agreed with my basic vision, there were many points of conflict. Readers took issue with my claim that mobile devices had reached the limits of industrial design—computer makers, they predicted, would surely come up with new ways to create a multifunction mobile gadget, something like a tablet with a retractable physical keyboard. Another big disagreement: Almost nobody liked my idea of using voice recognition to navigate our devices. It would be too distracting—and not very private!—to have everyone yelling at their phones on the bus.

Below, I've excerpted some of the best reader comments. (I have made some light edits for length and clarity.) Let's keep the discussion going—what do you think our mobile gadgets will look like in 2016?

Matthew Barr:
I think your assertion that industrial design has gone as far as it can may be faulty. In fact, I could see the line between tablets and laptops blurring in the future as the result of better design. 

For example: I can envision a device that combines the best of both worlds, just as smartphones combine elements from many past devices. For a starting point, imagine the MacBook Air. It's thin and light like a tablet (maybe the screen size gets smaller, maybe not), but with a keyboard and track pad. As currently designed, you flip the screen open and it sits on your desk like a normal laptop and acts like a laptop. But imagine that the screen could flip all the way back, such that you'd have a tablet-like gadget with a screen on one side and a keyboard on the other (think folding a book back so the front and back covers touch). Then imagine that screen is a touch-screen. Suddenly, you have all the advantages of a tablet. Fold it back the other way, and your tablet/laptop has a case to protect the screen and keyboard. You'd probably need some sort of cover or case for the keyboard for tablet mode as well as some other sleek features to lock it in place but these are relatively minor concerns. 

What operating system(s) such a device could run is open to debate. It could run a PC operating system when its screen is at 90 degrees to its keyboard and a tablet OS when it's folded all the way back. Or it could run some sort of hybrid operating system that could use a touch screen, mouse, and keyboard in ways that haven't yet been thought of. How battery-efficient it could be would likely depend in large part on how the software was designed, but used in tablet mode, it could compete with other tablets. 

Mark Martin:
Actually, I do think that tablets will supersede desktop/laptop computing in the consumer market and make serious headway in office environments. Large enterprises have been shifting away from traditional desktop computers in favor of docked laptops for some time now. 

With the exception of engineers or programmers who actually need the power of a desktop workstation, the needs of a majority of business users could quite easily be met by a docked tablet with a standard keyboard attached to the docking station. The same technology could easily be used to transition home users from traditional desktops as their current machines reach end of product lifetime.

Jeff Benjamin:
Convergence is the way things are shaping up as far as functionality. A few years back, I had a PDA, a phone, an MP3 player, a GPS, and a laptop. Now, my smartphone does just about everything all those devices did, in one small package that fits in my pocket. I can even use spreadsheets on my phone, albeit not very well. So I don't think function (work vs. games) is a particularly useful split—I both work and play on all my devices.

Smarter devices and software will let you carry just one gadget (perhaps with a small accessory like a keyboard or headset) and use it to work or play however you want: plug it into a larger monitor or a keyboard, use the touchpad, use Swype-like text entry, use a mouse, etc. There's no reason an iPad shouldn't be able to make phone calls and text, a phone shouldn't hook up to a larger screen, or a laptop shouldn't have a touch screen. I want one device, and I want to be able to interact with it in different ways.

Not Sen. Jon Kyl:
It may not happen in the next five or 10 years, but someday voice recognition and language translation will converge to turn our phones into universal communicators. Need to speak to someone in Russian? Talk to your phone, and let the phone repeat what you just said in Russian. Same thing in reverse. A conversation with a machine translator is a little clunky but better than nothing. That is something that would change international travel for the better.

Pico projectors. Not for projecting a keyboard, but for projecting video and TV in high-def on any wall. 2015 may be a bit early, but this is a fun content-consumption feature that would make our HDTVs truly portable. 

Paul Meyer:
I think the size of the observable screen will be the only difference on the outside of any device. With cloud computing and voice recognition to facilitate input and processing, we'll only need to be able to see what we are doing. Projection will solve that. One mobile device will be able to do it all if what you really need is a larger or smaller screen area. Worried about privacy? Digital encoding and special eyewear will allow you to be the only one to see what your device is projecting.

I think you've hit on one of the big coming tech changes: one unifying username. Sending a voice mail to a phone number vs. an email address will not be as different in the coming years. Farhad loves his Google Voice, which attempts to connect all your various digital communication sources (email, phone, etc.), but I'm imagining true interconnectivity, where you can contact anyone from any device (ask your TV to call Mom, and you talk to her while she's on the ship headed to the moon for vacation.)

Farhad, most of the time, when I'm sending a text or email or surfing the web, I don't want the whole office or the whole train or the whole family to know exactly what it is. I have no huge secrets, just ... why should they know? That's a huge obstacle in the way of voice recognition. If I speak loudly enough for the computer to hear me, everyone else will hear me too.



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