The future of mobile gadgets: How many will we carry? What will they look like? What will they do?

Where technology is going.
March 15 2011 6:36 PM

The Future of Mobile Gadgets

How many will we carry? What will they look like? What will they do?

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What will tomorrow's phones and tablets look like? They'll look like today's devices, but they'll be thinner and lighter. That's a boring answer, but there's no way around it. As I pointed out last year, the general shape of today's phones and tablets—a thin slab of glass—is perfectly suited to their function, so they've essentially reached the limits of industrial design. You can certainly think of far-out designs for phones and tablets—maybe we can make their displays flexible or foldable, so you can unfurl your phone into the size of a magazine, then later scrunch it down into your back pocket—but the technology to support those whiz-bang form factors isn't yet available for mass scale. What's more, it's hard to see the use case of these odd shapes; the 3-inch phone and the 10-inch tablet are the perfect size for our hands, so don't expect them to go away anytime soon.

It's more interesting to think about how we'll interact with these devices. Even though I just said that the touch interfaces of mobile gadgets make them well-suited for fun, it would still be nice if we had a better way to input text on them. Typing on a touch screen—and even on the tiny hard keys on small phones—is a frustrating experience. I expect that touch-typing software will improve over time, and we'll all get better at it in the same way that kids got so good at texting with numeric keypads. Even so, it will remain painful. Attaching a keyboard to your tablet is an inelegant solution; it's an extra thing to carry and keep stuffed with batteries. For years, people have dreamed of projection keyboards—an image of a keyboard projected onto a flat surface—but that presents the same tactile problems as a touch-screen keyboard. It's far more likely that we'll move beyond typing for entering data on the go. In particular, we'll come to rely on voice recognition. Android phones are already amazingly good at interpreting speech—good enough that you can abandon the keyboard for most of your search queries, mapping, and other one- or two-word entries. Google's speech-recognition experts promise that their technology is improving very quickly. It will be possible, within five years, to write most of your e-mail and text messages by dictation, with very few mistakes.

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Let's put the tech issues aside for a moment and think about what we'll actually do with the next generation of mobile devices. What I'm most looking forward to are the apps that change our relationship with one another and the physical world. If everyone gets a mobile computer that's constantly connected to the Internet, we'll be adding an enormous amount of processing power to the world. What can we do with all that power?

For one thing, we'll begin to digitize parts of the real world, allowing us to share resources and create businesses through online markets. Have a smartphone, a car, and extra time? Now you can become a part-time cabdriver: A start-up called Uber allows drivers to connect with riders through the magic of GPS and ubiquitous networks. Or see Park Circa, which lets you turn your private driveway into a shared parking space. When someone parks there, he pays you through his smartphone. Open Spot, a parking app by Google, is even better—when you leave a spot, you tag it as open, and when you're looking for a spot, you check your phone to see what's available nearby.

Notice that each of these apps obeys network effect theory: They get better as more people use them. Think of it as the Moore's Law of mobile gadgets. Over the next few years we'll be overrun with social and location-aware apps like these. Some of them won't sound very useful at first. Just wait. Soon, as more people get smartphones and begin to plug deeper into the mobile network, many of these apps will become not just useful, but irresistible.

There is, though, one hitch in this future. Batteries. They're not getting better at the same rate as everything else in tech. In 2016, you'll still need to charge your phone once a day. (Sorry, it's the truth.)

What do you think of my vision for the future of mobile computers? In the comments below, tell me what I've got right, what I got wrong, and what amazing—or awful—things you think I'm missing about the future. I'll highlight your best ideas in a future column.

Farhad Manjoo is a technology columnist for the New York Times and the author of True Enough.

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