Envisioning the smartphone of 2017

[2012-08-15]

Without delving into the relative merits of Android vs iOS vs Windows Phone, it is fair to claim that in 2007, Apple kicked off the trend for touch-screen and app-based devices that has become the leading paradigm for mobile phones today.

Borrowing heavily from what used to be considered personal computer technology, packed in a device small enough to fit in your pocket, the contemporary smartphone is celebrating its fifth birthday in 2012 without much fanfare. The sector is a fundamental driver of technological innovation and has essentially all major players working hard to outpace one another in accelerating product cycles.

It is therefore fitting to look ahead another five years and attempt to predict what the average consumer-grade smartphone might be like in 2017.

The point isn't to anticipate the relative market share eventual players and devices are likely to have in 2017. Predicting sales for the very near future is better left to experts like John Gruber and Horace Deidu. Instead, the exercise is to extrapolate on current technological trends and focus on the imperatives that seem to drive research and consumer expectations.

Excuse the Apple-centrism in the following diagram, but their narrow product line makes comparisons over time easier to show:

Comparing smartphone and laptop speed over time

Moore's Law claims that we can expect the 2017 crop of smartphones to be roughly 10× more powerful than today. That's the same order of magnitude of a mid-range laptop today. We can also expect storage in the vicinity of 256Gb (32Gb today) with 4 or 8 Gb RAM (1024 Mb today). But that explains only a fraction of what to expect from said future handset.

In a post-Megahertz-myth world, processor speed and storage capacity bear absolutely no relevance to end users. They serve merely as an expanding enabler for our pocket computers to swallow previously disparate technologies into the void which has already assimilated cameras, music players, video games, business cards, books, GPS devices, credit cards, newspapers and paper maps.

The effort of this article is to speculate about a few of these future potential scenarios.

ERGONOMY

The upper bounds of weight, volume and screen size have already been well-defined, and until devices allow us to unbundle aspects like power storage to external wireless batteries, or screens to glass-like Head-up Displays, the size of pockets/purses/hands will continue to be a limiting factor for portability. This, coupled with the discernment capacity of the human eye implies that screen resolution is unlikely to increase much beyond lower-hundred pixels per inch at ~4 diagonal inches. Manufacturers will instead focus on power efficiency, color saturation, brightness, thickness and eventually volumetric glasses-free 3D.

SCREENS

Considering the pervasiveness and multiplicity of both personal devices and ambient communal screens (like televisions), our 2017 smartphone will most likely extend considerably on existing screen-sharing and media-streaming functionalities. Transitioning conversations, video conferencing, gaming sessions, media playback, installed applications and user preferences between devices seamlessly will be taken for granted and possible with almost all screens that surround us.

This merging of screens will be done either from intense interoperability from manufacturers (unlikely) or by expanding on web standards in future versions of HTML (likely).

Consider Gmail: the messages in your inbox today are the same across all web browsers you log in from. If HTML extends toward persistent content states, you can expect the same behavior from immersive video games (pausing a game on your phone and resuming it on your TV), media playback, video conferencing and other computationally and bandwidth intensive applications.

Expect much deeper integration with other wearables like glasses, wrist-watches, sensors and clothing. While not expected to represent a massive shift by 2017, the concept of a personal input/output info-stream that follows you around will start to manifest itself.

INTERFACE

We're likely to see foldable & flexible screens for consumption-oriented devices (think Kindle, not iPad) very soon, but computationally intensive devices like smartphones will require high-performing hardware. Haptics (or simulated textures) are likely to show inroads on top-end devices by 2017, as are transflective screens which will further reduce energy consumption.

Definitely not a transflective screen

Texting in the sun will get better. Soon.

Gesture recognition coupled with already rapidly advancing speech recognition and context awareness should allow for very fast, multi-layered and complex interfacing with our smartphones.

If Siri and Google Now represent the current state of the art for invoking on-demand voice recognition, the 2017 smartphone ought to take on a more active role by "listen in" on conversations. Given permission, the device will take note of that article you mentioned you were going to send your friend when you last had coffee, and it will notify your spouse that you'll probably be early for dinner (before having left the office).

We might see the implementation of pico projectors and Augmented Reality projection mapping (by incorporating Kinect-style depth perception), allowing the device screen to bleed into real life. While technologically (Sixth Sense), AR mapping is computationally intensive and power-hungry. The device would be running on all engines, having to activate video camera, depth sensor, positioning systems as well as high-lumen pico projector, meaning said pseudo-AR would be used under exceptional circumstances like gaming or wayfaring.

MIT Sixth Sense demo

SENSORS

Deployment of NFC/contactless payments is already well underway, and should be commonplace not only at coffee-shop franchises, but in supermarkets and eventually your local corner shop. Discount cards, fidelity cards, boarding passes and bus tickets will take more than half a decade to be technologically supplanted, but we'll see swathes of already-digital transactions and identification processes that today happen to take place on specialized devices (like printed boarding passes) being incorporated by apps.

Extending NFC and methods of personal biometric identification (such as fingerprint or retinal scans) to unlocking your car, bicycle and ultimately your door is technologically feasible but psychologically cumbersome. Expect inroads but no massive behavioral shifts. Yet.

We should see Indoor Positioning take off, allowing for centimeter-resolution navigation in many public buildings. Contextual awareness should grow exponentially, allowing apps to know not only your geo-coordinates, but also factor in your schedule/intent, social graph and recent history when making decisions for you. We will still maintain the final word regarding our whereabouts, but will start trusting the system for "planned spontaneity".

Indoor navigation

BIOMETRICS

The smartphone will be a lot more knowledgable of its owner. Biometric readings such as: body temperature, blood pressure, insulin levels, heart rate and all sorts of activity tracking should allow the device to extrapolate a comprehensive picture of our health. Coupled with external sensors, such as ambient CO2, illumination, air quality & pressure, the device moves into Tricorder territory.

This could in effect outsource part of the triage doctors have to deal with to the realm of specialized applications. Which, in effect, leaves said qualified professionals with more time to deal with actual problems.

POWER

Koomey's law predicates that the energy efficiency of our devices doubles approximately every 1.5 years, which implies that our 2017 smartphone is expected to be 7-8× more efficient per joule, but the cumulative effect of power-hungrier CPUs, GPUs, sensors and screens has kept the amount of usable hours for our devices essentially stable around 8-10 hours of effective use. Considering that battery efficiency increase hasn't kept pace with Moore's observations and consumers' greed for speed, it is likely that improvements in battery technology will come from outside the device itself. Inductive charging, screen-embedded transparent photovoltaic panels and piezoelectric power generation are the most likely contestants in the race to keep batteries from running out before your lunch break.

NETWORKING

Networking will be faster, more predictive and have lower latency. Considering the timeline for infrastructure & protocol engineering, IP, Wi-Fi, 3G and 4G (LTE/WiMax) will still be predominant in 2017. Fifth-generation networking technologies will be on the horizon, but ultimately only interesting if they deliver on the promises of one global standard, pervasive networking and femtocell transitioning.

In five years' time, mobile networking should also increase transmission speeds and reduce latency by one order of magnitude each, allowing the offset of additional operations into the cloud. In terms of gaming, don't expect OnLive when riding the bus, but the state of the art will be far cry from Game Center. Or in terms of translations, thanks to Google's efforts coupled with low latency and high processing power, we'll be closer to the Babel Fish than ever before.

We'll see more network access sharing between devices and hopefully the death of paying for half a dozen data plans. This will be induced either by mobile phone operators offering true multi-device plans (unlikely) or personal area networks which aggregate local transmission onto the internet (likely).

We should also see a surge in devices feeding information back into the network in order to "smarten" the infrastructure. For example by sharing users' intent to drive to a different neighborhood later in the day, and having the network allocate resources accordingly. Or in switching off all non-pre-programmed appliances at home, automatically, when you leave. Or in notifying emergency services when a device that was previously traveling at 120 km/h on the freeway comes to an abrupt halt.

R.U.Cyberpunk?

Apologies to Mondo 2000

IN CONCLUSION

The smartphone of 2017 will still be readily identifiable as part of the same genus as today's iPhones and Androids. It will remain a slab of polished glass with lit pixels underneath. They'll still buzz for incoming notifications and allow you to contact practically anyone, anywhere in the world, on command.

It will inevitably incorporate a subset of the aforementioned technologies, but also surprise us with unimaginable functionalities that lay far beyond mere extrapolation.

It will hide an explosive wealth of possibilities behind the screen. It will not only react, but predict. Figuratively speaking, the device will allow you to see through walls and at times seem to be reading your mind. But it will not feel indistinguishable from magic. It will, like every device has, at every step of the way, become part of our expectations and quotidian, and become the new normal.

Thanks to Ricardo Justus, Simon Cox, Alex Lemon and Diana Assennato Botello for reading drafts of this.