Smartphones of the Future: How They Will Look, What They Will Do

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As you're reading this article, developers, engineers, and product designers are working on the next great mobile technology. The mobile world is rapidly changing: Smartphones have gone from portable messaging and email devices to streaming-video machines that surf the Web at blazing speed and have cameras that rival point-and-shoots (and they also happen to make calls). What will smartphones look like in five years? Or ten? What sort of amazing things will they be able to do?

Of course, we have no way to predict exactly how cell phones will evolve (unless some sort of magical crystal ball comes along), but looking at today’s trends and tracking what the geniuses at MIT and other academic institutions are up to can give us a pretty good idea of what’s to come.

Flexible Smartphone Designs

Microsoft Courier concept tablet
In the animated series Futurama, the character Amy has a cell phone so tiny that she ends up swallowing it. Although the technology inside phones will get smaller and smaller (think nanotechnology), don’t expect any nearly invisible phones anytime soon. According to Ramon Llamas, a senior research analyst at IDC Mobile Devices Technology and Trends, smartphones will stay around the 3.7-inch to 4.3-inch display size. They might become thinner and lighter, but the market won’t see microscopic phones. Displays won’t grow any larger than 4.3 inches, according to Llamas--after all, who wants to carry a tablet in their pocket?

Kyocera Echo
Even so, consumers can’t get enough of display real estate, which is why manufacturers might try to pack in as much display as possible--while retaining the pocketable size. Remember the Kyocera Echo on Sprint? We applauded its innovative foldable, dual-screen design (it sort of resembled a Nintendo DS), but the way the software interacted with the two screens had some issues. Nevertheless, don’t expect this design idea to go away, says Llamas. He thinks we’ll be seeing similar designs--with better execution--in the next five years.

Other phone manufacturers have toyed around with dual-screen phones, too: Some concept designs have a regular LCD or OLED display on one side and an electronic-ink display on the other. Expect future dual-screen phones to be as thin as today’s full-touch phones when folded.

Llamas also expects to see more wearable phones in the next few years. Of course, we’ve already seen James Bond-esque wristwatch phones from a few manufacturers like LG, but they've been exclusively released in Europe and Asia. And future phones won't be limited to the wristwatch form: You'll be able to bend, fold, and shape your phone to whatever design you prefer. Imagine transforming your phone from a wristwatch/bracelet style to a touchscreen style with a full QWERTY keyboard, and then folding it again to slip it into your pocket.

Nokia Morph
A good example of what future wearable phones could look like is the Nokia Morph, a concept device that showcases the collaboration between the Nokia Research Center and the Cambridge Nanoscience Centre. The Morph uses nanotechnology to create a flexible, malleable electronic device. The Morph is constructed from fibril proteins that are woven into three-dimensional mesh, allowing the whole phone--screen included--to move and bend.

Remember the roll-up electronic newspapers from the movie Minority Report? We could soon see something similar used in cell phone displays. In 2008, HP and the Flexible Display Center at Arizona State University unveiled a prototype of an affordable, flexible electronic display that uses self-aligned imprint lithography (SAIL) technology. Those paperlike computer displays are made almost entirely of plastic, which makes them durable, movable, and portable.

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