The smartphone, circa 2031

Small improvements can go in surprising and strange directions


What will the smartphone look like in 10 years? The most likely answer, I’m afraid, is one of two options: it’s either completely unknowable or disappointingly predictable.

The story of the smartphone thus far began with technological breakthroughs paired with ingenuity (Camera + Data = Instagram) but eventually evolved into a yearly cadence of iterative improvements (better camera). Ten years from now, when we gaze upon the devices in our hands (or, less likely, consider the implant in our spinal columns), I expect we’re going to be telling one of those two stories again. 

The most likely story, as always, is iteration. Absent some breakthrough, we’ll likely have much more impressive versions of the things we can buy today. Nearly every time somebody says that there will be a massive breakthrough in five to 10 years — be it self-driving cars or augmented reality — the safest bet is that they’ll be making the same prediction five years later. It’s easy to underestimate how important iterative changes can be

Even with iterative updates, smartphones will be radically better than they are today, and they’ll be different in some ways, too. The screens will be brighter and fold in different ways, the cameras will be so advanced that they’ll threaten to obviate even higher-end SLRs, and the digital assistants inside them will be smarter. 

It’s easy to underestimate how important iterative changes can be. Would Instagram have been born if the original iPhone camera hadn’t been kind of junky? Would it still exist if that camera hadn’t become so good it has destroyed entire categories of products? OLED is just a new way of displaying pixels, but it can flex and uses very little power, so now our phones fold in half, and we take calls on our wrist computers. 

A simple, incremental advancement in a component can simply make our phones faster — or it can surprise everybody by catalyzing a shift in culture. More of those changes are in our future, and many of them will be emergent behaviors catalyzed by some seemingly insignificant spec. Each phone launch will be less exciting than the last — but that doesn’t mean phones will become less important or impactful

Take ultra wideband, for example. It’s the chip in top-end phones that allows them to locate other devices in space and also transmit small bits of data — to unlock a door, for example. Right now, it’s used to locate gadgets in the couch cushions, and there’s a promise it’ll unlock your car door soon. But just as we didn’t initially realize that GPS + Data = Uber, we don’t really know yet what else UWB could unlock (pardon the pun). I could guess, but such guesses often end up looking like the naive predictions of overly optimistic futurists. UWB could come to naught.

Whatever happens, the iterative path for smartphones will inevitably mean each phone launch will be less exciting than the last — a trend we’re already familiar with today. But that doesn’t mean that phones will become less important or impactful. Instead, they’ll become more familiar and (forgive another pun) part of the fabric of our culture. We’ll begin to more clearly see that phones function as a kind of fashion. That they will follow yearly trends that will be a lot more about style than function. 

With any luck, we’ll also have a deeper and more self-conscious awareness of the smartphone’s place in our culture, just as we have with fashion. My hope is that phones will be ever-present without being all-consuming.

I hate to start on a down note about the future of technological progress, but it’s important to stay a little grounded in reality. I could spin a tale about phones that project their displays into mid-air between your fingers. I could predict that we won’t have phones at all but, instead, high-bandwidth jacks plugged right into our brains, connecting us into a 6 or 7G network of wordless, emotive communication. But getting from here to there requires more leaps than can responsibly be made, both ethically and imaginatively. That’s the way with some technological advancements: they can drive changes in culture that head in surprising and strange directions. 

Fourteen years ago, Palm founder Jeff Hawkins unveiled his last big idea for tech. He had beat the tech giants in PDA with the PalmPilot and created the Treo smartphone well ahead of the iPhone or Android. His third and final act was to be a different kind of computer, a dummy terminal that simply acted as a window into your phone, where all your real data lived. It was called the Foleo, and it never launched — Palm had more immediate worries.

Today, the Foleo seems naive. We don’t need to store our lives in our phones — all that data can live in the cloud. And the phones themselves would become more engaging in and of themselves than Hawkins could have predicted. They’re the engines of content creation and consumption that drive an ouroboros economy worth billions, if not trillions of dollars. Instead of the Foleo, we have Chromebooks and iPads.

None of those developments had happened in 2007, and few of them would have been predictable. That’s the way with some technological advancements: they can drive changes in culture that head in surprising and strange directions.

We can try to guess what some of those advancements might actually be. Certainly, there are some promising directions like AR glasses, folding displays, the chance that modularity will finally work, and even that our phones will stop consolidating into a single device and instead explode out into a mesh network of tinier, more bespoke gadgets.

We can’t say what phones will look like in 10 years. But here are some guesses of what they might look like. –Dieter

Foldables

Wouldn’t it be better if our phones could shape-shift into a size fit for the task at hand? That’s the promise behind foldables.

Before foldable devices really take off, a couple of things need to be figured out, starting with the issue of cost. The Samsung Galaxy Z Flip 3 takes folding phones a little closer to the mainstream with a $999 price tag, but that’s still out of reach for many people, and the bigger foldables like the Fold 3 remain closer to $2,000. Manufacturers will need to be able to make those folding components more efficiently at a lower cost.

Durability is another major concern — foldables require more delicate screens, along with hinges and moving parts that are much more difficult to seal against dust and water than the components of a standard candy bar-shaped phone. Samsung has gotten creative to make its folding phones more durable (when in doubt, inject it with cure-in-place goo!), but many more solutions will be needed for screens that roll and flex. It doesn’t help that we’re all conditioned to expect a certain level of durability from our devices that phones of the future will need to meet. –Allison

Modular

The smartphone industry has dabbled in modular phones over the years, teasing a future filled with devices that can morph and upgrade as needed, adding on better cameras, different sensors, and surprising new capabilities. But time and again, the idea has failed.

There was LG’s G5, which let you slide out its bottom section to add on a hi-fi DAC or a camera attachment with a dedicated shutter button. But LG gave up on the entire concept by the next year. Then Motorola gave it a go with its Moto Z lineup, creating a system where accessories could magnetically attach to the back of the phone. There were battery packs, a JBL speaker, a Hasselblad camera, and even a competent movie projector, and they worked across several generations of devices. But sales figures didn’t measure up, and eventually, the modular push fell by the wayside.

By comparison to those efforts, Google’s Project Ara seemed like the true modular dream. As the company pitched it, you’d someday be able to swap out individual components of a phone — processor, camera sensor / lenses, battery, and even the display — and keep your original device up to date with the latest hardware advancements by regularly replacing its guts. But the company threw in the towel on Project Ara and its LEGO-style upgrades before ever shipping hardware to developers. It’s a damn shame.

There’s certainly a technical challenge to pulling off our sci-fi modular phone fantasies. Google had to pull back on its ambitions with Ara and ended up integrating the CPU and display into the device’s frame, meaning they wouldn’t be replaceable. And perhaps the biggest reason that piecemeal smartphones would never work is profit margin. When Samsung, Apple, and other companies can charge $1,000 for fresh devices every year, what’s the incentive for them to adopt a modular approach that allows consumers to spend less money and upgrade their phones with the latest groundbreaking tech? Maintaining compatibility with a modular system over years could also slow companies from trying to push forward with more inventive, futuristic designs. It’s hard to look at something like the Galaxy Z Fold 3 and see how there’d be an easy way to swap out its components.

But in 10 years, maybe the mobile industry will have evolved to a point where modular phones make a comeback. That, or the right to repair initiative could win so big that companies will make it so much easier to repair our gadgets that it almost feels like they’re modular. We can dream, right? –Chris

Smart glasses

The most tempting prediction to make is that in 10 years’ time, the handheld smartphone as we know it will be replaced — or at least relegated to our pockets more often than not — by smart eyeglasses. 

We’re already on the path, though early attempts like Google Glass were too rudimentary, creepy, and strange-looking. More recent tries from companies like Focal still depend on the phone for too much of their functionality. Meta, the newly rebranded company behind Facebook, is continuing to explore the concept, and Apple’s oft-rumored mixed reality glasses remain in development. The main obstacle is being able to shrink all the necessary technology down into a pair that normal people would want to wear

But it doesn’t take much to imagine a sleek future pair of fully independent smart glasses with lenses that double as private displays for things like our notifications, real-time AR directions, and video streaming. 

The main obstacle between existing and more capable smart glasses is being able to shrink all the necessary technology down into a pair that normal people would want to wear in public. Display technology also isn’t quite where it needs to be just yet. Some past smart glasses have projected their UI onto the lens glass, but that’s where things get bulky.

The other fundamental challenge is coming up with an interface that makes sense and feels like the right fit between your eyes and the outside world. Eye tracking would have to play some part in that. Think of how often you check your phone throughout the day. No one would want to be constantly futzing with swipe and tap gestures on their glasses that frequently. Voice dictation also needs to evolve beyond its current performance on mobile devices if we’re going to be comfortable leaving our foldable phones or slabs at home. 

Even if this is all figured out, the tried and true smartphone won’t be history in 10 years — productivity and other tasks simply lend themselves better to a device with a screen and keyboard. –Chris

Ambient computing

In the most sci-fi-fueled visions of the next 10 years, a phone isn’t something we carry around with us — it’s everywhere. Every room in your home has a smart speaker, a screen, a lamp, and who knows what, that’s connected to the network and ready to do whatever you would have asked of your phone. 

Outside of the home is more of the same. We don’t carry a personal device with us — it’s in our cars, at our bus stops, in every public trashcan and streetlight. Rather than face the onerous task of taking a phone out of your pocket, unlocking it, opening the right app, and typing words on its little screen, the world around us will simply be equipped to do the tedious stuff for us. 

Need to send a message to your mom asking how she’s feeling after her bionic limb replacement? Your bathroom mirror was two steps ahead of you and sent the message this morning. Running into the store for last-minute dinner ingredients? Your shopping cart already talked to your refrigerator and knows what you need to buy, which aisle it’s on, and how to pay for it all once you’re done. We’ll outsource the personal bits from personal computing, freed from the confines of little glowing screens and just moving through the world like Sims. It’ll be great. Or awful! Probably awful.

There are very obvious and serious ethical problems with this scenario. Equipping the world around us to anticipate and solve our needs requires us to surrender an incredible amount of information about ourselves. And what happens when the almighty algorithm decides that we’re acting suspiciously by analyzing our sleep patterns, purchases, and oral hygiene habits? Just take a look through the last 70 years of sci-fi movies and literature if you want to know how that works out. 

Maybe a fully ambient computing life isn’t in our future, but it’s not a stretch to imagine that aspects of this vision could come to life

All Rights Reserved for Dieter Bohn

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