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Future of the Smartphone

It's hard to believe that the smartphone has actually only been around for a short time and it all began with the release of the first iPhone in 2007.

These days, its hard to believe that ten years ago we didn’t have smartphones.

To think that we were all totally happy with Worm on our Nokias until the smartphone came along. Crazy, right?

The first iPhone combined high-performance hardware with an attractive, touch-based and easy-to-use interface, and accidentally created an industry of third-party mobile app development that will bring in an estimated $77 billion per year in revenue by 2017.

The basic physical design and feature set of smartphones have not changed much since then, though some major features have been added (including GPS, voice recognition, higher mobile data speeds, wireless payments, front-facing cameras, gyroscopes and built-in wireless charging capability).

The actual capability of the smartphone’s hardware has steadily improved (the original iPhone, for example, had a 32-bit 620 MHz CPU, 128 MB RAM, 16 GB max storage, and a 166 ppi screen, while the iPhone 6 has a dual core 64-bit 1.4 GHz CPU, a quad-core GPU, 1 GB RAM, 120 GB max storage, and a 326 ppi screen) over time and I expect it to get better.

In the future we can pretty much expect smartphones to evolve in the same way, with further refinements and iterations of the same model.
New features will be introduced here and there—some of them hardware-based, some of them software-based—and the basic hardware will continue to improve incrementally, but I think the basic form factor is here to stay.

Smartphones will continue to be smallish, hard rectangles with glass screens controlled via touch and powered by rechargeable lithium-ion batteries, and will probably not be replaced by any other type of device anytime soon. Nobody liked Google Glass, after all.

I expect the most dramatic change in the next few years in smartphone technology to be the emergence of the Internet of Things, including wearables, smart homes, smart cars and smart cities. The smartphone is the perfect device for controlling all of your internet connected things.

The smartphone, though, will play a key role in the IoT by providing users with a way to control or communicate with connected objects (for example, by turning on the lights or the air conditioner in a smart home via a smartphone app), as well as by transferring data stored on the phone, or data stored in one of the phone’s associated cloud storage accounts, to the connected object (temporarily transferring the user’s Pandora stations and stored locations to the onboard systems of a rented smart car, perhaps).

In addition, one technology in development that could significantly change the way smartphones are manufactured and used, though it may not have the universal appeal of smartphones themselves, is modularity.

I have heard of a number of different phone manufacturers developing modular phones and this I think will be the next big change in smartphones.

Modular smartphones are physically-customizable smartphones that have a rectangular base unit (contains a CPU and other basic hardware) and maybe a replaceable screen upon which (maybe on the back of the device) individual modules, such as a camera, speaker and extra RAM and batteries, can be snapped into place.

Budget-conscious consumers can buy a smartphone that includes only the components they want, and none of the components that they don’t want.

Consumers don’t have to replace their devices as often; they can repair their devices simply by replacing the broken module; and they can upgrade their devices simply by adding more advanced, newly-developed modules.

Users can physically customize their smartphones at will; for example, they can snap on an advanced camera and extra data storage modules if they plan to spend the day taking photos.

Perhaps you could put on multiple batteries if they know they won’t be able to charge their phone for a while. Modular smartphones would also allow for the creation of highly-specialized modules that wouldn’t make financial sense for a smartphone manufacture to include in a mass-produced phone, but that would still be useful for a significant number of people, such as glucose meters for diabetics.

It will be interesting to see whether modular smartphones become popular and perhaps even replace pre-assembled smartphones, or become a niche product, or perhaps fail entirely.

I think modular smartphones could succeed and become “the smartphone of the future” if a module design industry developed that was as crowded, competitive and creative as the mobile app development industry.

As some CEO’s like to scream repeatedly, "It's all about developers, developers, developers!" Or when it comes to the modular smartphone, I guess it's all about creators, creators, creators!