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Posted by Tom Cheesewright on

The End of the Mobile Phone

Today is a slightly artificial anniversary of the mobile phone. One probably cooked up by Motorola’s PR team many years ago as it features Motorola employee Martin Cooper making the first call from an old DynaTac back in 1973. You could probably pick any number of test calls around that time, made by a number of different companies, as the real anniversary, but this story seems to have gained traction, leading me to appear on a few different radio shows commenting on how far we’ve come in the last 40 years.

So much as I recently did for Twitter on its 7th anniversary, I thought I’d take a look at the future of the mobile phone. And I find myself thinking that it may not have one at all.

Forty years ago the mobile phone was just that: a portable handset connected to the telephone network via the airwaves. It was for voice calls and nothing more. Fast forward to today and people rarely seem to list ‘making calls’ in the top things they do with their smartphone. It is a camera, media player, gaming device, web browser, email and social media tool.

Each of these functions, alongside the ability to make calls, places both functional and ergonomic demands on the design of the device. Demands that have first shrunk it down and then stretched it out to accommodate more hardware and larger screens.

The result is a compromise. However slick and pretty we make these little slabs of glass and plastic, they are not ideally shaped for any of their functions. What keeps the functions all packaged together into one place has been — in part — technological restrictions. If you were to separate all of the features out into individual units you would need to supply each with power and connectivity so that they could keep running and share their functions with each other. This adds cost and complexity; small batteries powering wirelessly-connected devices would not last very long.

But the price of technology falls fast, in direct opposition to its capability. Before long the cost and capability barriers to breaking all of the converged functions out of the mobile phone will be outweighed by the benefits.

Does this mean we will be left with an old-school phone just for voice calls? No. For exactly the same reasons. Is holding your hand up to your head really the best way to put a microphone and speaker in the appropriate places? Strip away the technological restrictions and the phone was never a great design for its original purpose. Our first attempts at replicating these features wirelessly — the Bluetooth headset — may make you look like a bit of a twonk, but they are improving. We seem to have much less of an issue with less sci-fi, more stylish headsets that allow us to use both our hands while making a call.

What will be stripped from the phone will be all the user inputs and outputs: screen, camera, microphone, speaker, movement sensors. These will be distributed around the body through connected clothing and accessories. What is left will be storage and connectivity — a little personal server/router that links together your devices and connects you back to the net. Will this still be a ‘mobile phone’? Arguably not: descended from it but so removed in usage terms that it doesn’t really count.

How fast will this happen? Well it has begun: look at the increasing prevalence of wearable health sensors like the Nike+Fitbug, and Jawbone Up. Rumours are rife about Apple launching a smart watch to bring you updates from your phone; Pebble raised over $10m from Kickstarter in order to bring similar technology to market. Battery technology and wireless connections have improved dramatically. Printable, flexible screens are just around the corner.

I think there’s a good chance that in ten years time we might be looking back at the passing mobile phone era, rather than celebrating another anniversary.

Tom Cheesewright