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?

Illustration by Robert Neubecker. Click image to expand.

I got my first cell phone a little more than a decade ago, just as I was finishing college and looking for my first job. I didn't need a mobile phone; none of my friends had them, and I was pretty sure they'd all mock me for getting one. (They did.) At the time, there was still something ostentatious and vaguely shady about mobile communications devices. There seemed to be only a handful of reasons why someone would need to carry a phone or a pager at all times: a) You were a doctor; b) you were a drug dealer; and/or c) you were a self-important schmuck. Neither a) nor b) applied in my case. I wanted a cell phone because I like gadgets. If you pressed me on it, I might have pointed out that Europeans and Asians were flocking to mobile phones, so it seemed likely that Americans would soon, too. But mostly I wanted a cell phone because it seemed cool to be able to call people from anywhere. In other words, c).

I wasn't alone. Between 1997 and 2002, the number of American mobile phone subscribers jumped from 55 million to 141 million. What happened? Sure, technology was part of the story. Cell phones kept getting smaller, cheaper, and better; by the turn of the century they offered good enough coverage and call quality that you could use them pretty much anywhere. But all gadgets keep getting better—and even if they were cheaper than before, getting a cell phone typically required a commitment of at least several hundred dollars a year, so it was by no means cheap. Why did nearly everyone suddenly decide that mobile phones were worth this cost? The big reason, I think, was the network effect. As more people got cell phones, cell phones became more useful—there were more people to call, more people to text, and more people who began to assume that you, too, had a cell phone. At some point there were enough mobile phones that the cultural attitudes about the device flipped. People stopped thinking you were a self-important schmuck if you carried a mobile phone. You were a self-important schmuck if you didn't.

Over the next few weeks I'll be writing a series of articles on the future of technology. This week, I'm looking at mobile devices—not just phones but also tablets, music players, video cameras, and the other tiny computers that seem certain to represent the next computing frontier. I'm obviously interested in how these gadgets will evolve technically—their physical design, their user interfaces, their processing power, battery life, and software. But I think it's just as important to think about how society will morph to accommodate these mobile devices—which ones we'll accept, which ones we'll reject, what we'll use them for, and how well we'll tolerate their interruptions and annoyances. The future of mobile tech won't be just a story of shrinking computers. It's also a story of how we, as a culture, respond to all these shrinking computers.

But let's start with the devices themselves. The most basic question about tomorrow's mobile gadgets is one that we're struggling to answer today: How many different devices will we have? At the moment, we have a lot of different tools with overlapping functionality. You can read books on your smartphone, tablet, or e-reader. You can play tunes and watch movies on your music player, phone, or tablet. If you're going on a trip, do you carry your phone and your laptop, your phone and your tablet, your phone and your e-reader, or just your phone? Some people will carry everything—see last year's Wall Street Journal profile of tech geeks who carry too many electronics when they travel. (Phil Libin, the CEO of the software company Evernote, carries a 26-pound backpack stuffed with computers, tablets, phones, cameras, batteries, and cables.) Most of us, though, are going to spend our time and money on just one or two of these devices. Now imagine it's 2016. Which gadgets are you taking along on your morning commute?

I'm betting on the smartphone and the tablet—in other words, you'll carry a small computer for your pocket and a bigger one for your purse or backpack. I'm not predicting that other devices will die out—people will still use e-readers, laptops, video cameras, and music players, but we'll think of them as niche devices, things you reach for when you want to do something specialized.

I'm guessing readers will disagree with me that tablets will overshadow laptops as our main mobile machines. At the moment, the laptop (which we can define as a portable computer with a keyboard and a traditional PC operating system) has a couple major advantages over the tablet (a keyboardless, touch-screen gadget with a mobile OS). The laptop has more processing power, and it's got a keyboard and pointing device that allow for faster text entry and application switching. This makes it an ideal computer for office productivity. If you need to enter a lot of text or data, copy and paste stuff between apps, and do other kinds of tasks you get paid for, there's no better machine than a laptop.

But the laptop has several disadvantages, too. The increased power comes at the cost of battery life (no laptop can match the 10 hours the iPad lasts on a single charge), and the keyboard, pointing device, and user interface make it less well-suited to tasks that go beyond productivity apps. It's easier and more comfortable to surf the Web, read long articles, play games, and interact with media on a tablet than on a laptop. These might not sound like "important" tasks, but important isn't what sells mobile gadgets. Fun does.

PCs were an office-centric technology; they changed how you worked, but they didn't greatly alter how you spent your evenings and weekends. Phones, tablets, and other small computers infiltrate our lives much more deeply, and they'll overshadow their PC counterparts mainly because they're more enjoyable. When Apple released the first iPad last year, it created a keyboard dock and special office apps for the device. As Marco Arment points out, Apple now seems to have abandoned the push to make the iPad a productivity machine. It discontinued the iPad keyboard dock, and the apps it created for the iPad 2, GarageBand and iMovie, are about having fun rather than doing work. I'm sure that phones and tablets will have improved enough by 2016 to make doing some work on them palatable; you'll probably be able to take just those two devices on a business trip. But I suspect we'll still see a major division between machines meant for the office and machines meant for fun. You'll have a laptop for work. For everything else, you'll reach for a touch screen.

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.

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.