The Economist publishes this week its Technology Quarterly supplement, which includes a long article trying to imagine how telephones will look like - and how we will use them - in ten or fifteen years. I'm quoted in the article, as are many other observers of the trajectory of communication technology and of our relationship to it. A few items from the story:
- Chances are that phones will not only look very different - they may not even be seen. They may be hidden in jewellery or accessories, or even embedded in the body.
- Studies show that people read around ten megabytes (worth of material a day; hear 400MB a day, and see one MB of information every second. In a decade's time a typical phone will have enough storage capacity to be able to video its user's entire life.
- Researchers at Nokia speculate that within a decade, the cost of storage will have fallen so far that it might be possible to store every piece of music ever recorded in a single chip that could be included in each phone. (...) This could open up new business models that do not depend on downloading music over the airwaves; instead, the phone could simply exchange brief messages with a central server to unlock purchased tracks or report back on what the user had listened to for billing purposes.
- Tiny projectors inside handsets could allow walls, tabletops or screens made of flexible materials to be used as displays while on the move.
- Today's earpieces may give way to smaller devices hidden in earrings or worn as minuscule patches on the skin near the ear.
- Voice may turn out to be an interim technology. Researchers are developing sensors that pick up the subtle changes in the larynx and mouth when words are formed, even if there is little or no air going through the windpipe. So future phones might simply be able to lip-read using a sensor hidden in your collar.
- Today the idea of “approximeeting” - arranging to meet someone without making firm plans about time or place, and then finalising details via mobile phone while out and about - is commonplace.
- The ability to superimpose images and sound upon reality means that future phones will “create layers on our world”.
- “We are learning that we never have to be away from people". (Don Norman)
The article covers many other points: objects getting "connected" too, privacy concerns, brain sensors, wallets and keys functions being incorporated in the mobile devices etc. The author of the story, Kenneth Cukier, didn't spare efforts and interviewed a very broad range of specialists. And that's why one of the most interesting aspects of his article is what it actually doesn't say. Except for a brief mention of "phones that double as both fixed and mobile devices" (devices capable of using cellular networks outdoors and switching to local base stations indoors), the four-pages story includes no discussion at all of the future of the fixed phone. Nobody brought it up in their discussions with Cukier, and very little thinking seems to be going into fixed-phone innovation. The phone of the future may be mobile-only. In the minds of both developers and observers (and users?) the fixed phone seems to be on the way to extinction.