Today's smartphones are pretty amazing. When I first became an IT writer, in the 1990s, cell phones were simplistic devices that made phone calls (sometimes not very well). My first one was a bulky Motorola "bag phone." The full tower desktop computer I was using at that time had a much slower processor and far less RAM and storage than the smartphone I carry in my pocket today.
We've come a long way, baby, in less than two decades -- but there still are some exciting technologies on the horizon. In this post, I'd like to take a look at a few features that are rare or not found at all in today's phones that will likely be standard on the smartphones of the future.
Near Field Communication (NFC)
NFC is a means by which you can transfer data wirelessly between two equipped devices. So, what's special about that? Sure, we've been wirelessly transferring data for a long time, via Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, and IrDA. NFC differs from those methods in a couple of important ways. First, the devices must be very close to one another (within a few inches) to exchange information. In addition, the data is protected by strong encryption, so that you can send sensitive data such as credit card information securely.
NFC could bring big changes to our lives, and it's seen as the future of monetary exchange, which would free us from carrying around cash, credit cards, or even traditional ID cards. All of that would be stored on your phone, and you could make payments or provide your credentials by simply holding your phone close to an NFC reader.
There are obvious security and privacy issues to be addressed, but there's little doubt the smartphones of the future will all support NFC. It's already in (or expected to be in) several phones that are on the market or will be released before the end of this year, such as the Google Nexus S, the Samsung Galaxy S II, BlackBerry Bold 9900 series, and the Nokia C7. NFC is rumored to be coming in either the iPhone 5 or iPhone 6, although it was left out of the iPhone 4S. A recent announcement also confirmed that Windows phones will get NFC in 2012.
There's little doubt that in the next few years, NFC will be a "must have" feature in high-end smartphones and eventually in low-priced so-called feature phones.
Augmented Reality (AR)
Another technology that's already available but not yet in widespread use is Augmented Reality (AR). The idea behind AR is to combine a live view of an object or environment with real-time data generated by a computing device (in this case, a smartphone). The computer data is generally viewed as an overlay to the live view (which is usually input by the smartphone's camera lens) to enhance what we see in the "real world."
Here's an example: You point your phone at an office building, and the information overlay tells you the name of the building, who owns it, company or companies occupying it, its current property tax valuation, maybe even whether companies in the building are hiring.
Another form of augmented reality would work like this: point the phone's camera at an object, and the display will show you its dimensions (height, width, etc.). Or how about this: You point your phone at a stranger on the street, and your phone searches the databases of social networks, such as Facebook and Google+, and brings you back the person's name and whatever personal information he/she has made public on those sites.
There are obvious privacy issues involved, as well as technological ones (for instance, the limited accuracy of GPS and current facial recognition software). However, there are already smartphone apps available that can do some of these things, and you can bet we'll see more applications like this -- in increasingly sophisticated ways -- in future phones.
Form factors of the future
In addition to the exciting new features and functionalities that we can expect to come down the pike, it's likely that tomorrow's smartphones will look a bit different from the ones we carry today. Think about the difference between the clunky DynaTAC 8000X that was introduced in the 1980s and today's sleek designs. The trend in smartphones has been toward ever thinner devices with bigger screens -- but as I asked in a previous article on smartphone form factors, how long can that go on? How much bigger can smartphone screens get before they turn into tablets? How much thinner can they become and still have room for the circuits, radios, and batteries that need to nestle inside?
One of the biggest annoyances for smartphone owners today is where/how to carry it. Thin as they've become, they still take up room in a pocket or bag, and we usually have to carry them in addition to a wallet, keys, and perhaps other essentials. One day, our phones might be the size of a credit card, so we can just slip them into our wallets with our other cards. But the more likely scenario is that we'll ditch the wallets and carry only the phones, which will contain all that stuff we now put in our wallets (identification, credit cards, key fobs) in digital form (see NFC above).
What about those times when we don't have a pocket, though? One possibility is to wear your phone on your wrist like a watch. The idea is as old as Dick Tracy, and it's been tried several times over the years, without a huge amount of success. However, there are already a number of "smart watches" on the market running Android and other operating systems. Wristwatch phones may just be a matter of time.
Projecting into the future
While we're waiting for the day when we'll become human/phone cyborgs, there are other ways to solve the small screen problem. There have been attempts to create a smartphone that incorporates a projector, and although the idea didn't catch fire, it opens up some interesting possibilities for the future. A phone that could project its display onto a larger surface could be smaller than today's behemoths (think Droid Charge, Infuse, and the upcoming Galaxy Nexus) that must accommodate 4-inch plus screens. Projection technology can even be used to create a projected full-size keyboard for easier typing. Currently, that requires you to buy an accessory like the VKB Magic Cube and Celluon laser keyboard, but it could be built into the smartphones of the future.
One phone to rule them all
Finally, there's a good chance that the smartphones of the near future will be, for many people, their only computers. Smartphone processors are getting faster, and they're getting more memory and larger amounts of storage. Who'll need a laptop or desktop when we have phones with quad core 3 GHz processors and 8 GB of RAM? What we will need is a way to easily hook that core computer up to peripherals: multiple larger monitors, full-sized physical keyboards and mice, terabyte-plus drives, printers, scanners, surround sound speakers, TVs, and so forth.
The Motorola Atrix has already shown us what that could do. It provides desktop and laptop docks, and that's a great start, but I want more. I can envision the day when I have my super-slim credit card-sized phone that I can carry alone (with built-in projection technology if I want to increase the display size) or slip into a slot on my desktop dock, laptop dock, or even a tablet "shell" to give me more screen real estate without projecting. It would be a full-fledged computer in every sense of the word, with the ability to wirelessly connect to printers, external hard drives, and just about any other accessory that you can currently plug into a desktop computer via USB.
The ultimate smartphone
The ultimate smartphone would be a true bionic phone (not to be confused with the Motorola Droid). In the extreme manifestation, sensors would be implanted directly to your brain so you could make a call or tell the phone to perform other tasks simply by thinking them, and the display would appear in your field of vision without any physical screen.
Your smartphone would always be with you -- no worries about losing it, having it stolen, or dropping it on the pavement. There would be no need for input devices, although you could output to printers or physical displays if you wanted to share the visuals with other people. Your phone would be so integrated with your brain that you wouldn't even have to explicitly think to input some information. For example, I now have a fitness app where I enter all the foods that I eat each day. My bionic phone could detect from my brain activity that I'm eating a banana and automatically enter that into my daily nutrition log. I think we're still a ways off from realizing that sci-fi scenario, but who's to say it won't happen someday?
Debra Littlejohn Shinder, MCSE, MVP is a technology consultant, trainer, and writer who has authored a number of books on computer operating systems, networking, and security. Deb is a tech editor, developmental editor, and contributor to over 20 additional books on subjects such as the Windows 2000 and Windows 2003 MCSE exams, CompTIA Security+ exam, and TruSecure's ICSA certification.