My wife and I were watching a movie not long ago, and Clint Eastwood as Dirty Harry was being chased by bad guys through the streets of San Francisco. “Why doesn’t he just call for backup?” she asked absently, before realizing that the movie was filmed when cellphones were the size of a cinder block and nearly as heavy. Few people could afford them in those days, and they weren't terribly useful even for those who could manage the bill.
Fast forward to today, when your smartphone is your digital world. With a device you can hold in your hand, it’s possible to answer email, send nearly instant text messages, watch movies, listen to music, check the balance in your bank account, make dinner reservations, take pictures, shoot video, manage your investments — and, almost as an afterthought, it makes phone calls. With the right applications and some investment in home automation, it can lock and unlock your front door, adjust the temperature in your home, open the garage door, turn on lights, and even shut off the kitchen faucet. As amazing as all that seems, especially considering the state of cellular technology in the late 70s, the technical marvel you have clipped to your belt or in your purse is just the warm-up act for what’s coming.
Evolution Before Revolution
Making predictions for the short-term development of computer-based technology is relatively straightforward, because hardware advances tend to be evolutionary; the next evolution of your cell phone is already in the design phase.
For most users, their phone does 95% of the tasks they need any computer to do. That’s why we've seen a push for more screen real estate, until we bumped into the clumsy “phablet” design that’s half phone, half tablet — and doesn't do either particularly well. The next iteration of cellphones will take that concept to the next level by incorporating 64-bit, multi-core processors, very similar to what you probably have in your laptop today. Put your phone in a docking station that includes a keyboard, mouse, and monitor, and you’ll be able to do anything you can do on a full-size laptop, plus still make phone calls. The separation between your phone, laptop, and office computer, already blurring, will finally disappear completely.
Peripheral Devices Take Over
As your phone becomes a more powerful computer, it will evolve into a hub for remote devices. Your watch, bracelet, earpiece, even your glasses will become extensions of your phone. Instead of a phone with a large screen, your phone will shrink to a small block-shaped device with no screen, and you’ll merely utilize the appropriate peripheral for tasks — an earpiece(s) for making calls and listening to music, a tablet for web surfing and maps, a small display on your wrist for appointment reminders, text messages and email. You won’t need to dock your phone anymore, except for charging; it will detect the proximity to a docking station and the transition will be seamless.
For those with medical conditions, their phone will also take over as a medical watchdog, reporting potential problems directly to your doctor, and providing care providers with a constant stream of monitoring data. They will be simple systems at first; pulse, respiration, blood sugar, and O2 saturation will be followed by more detailed medical information from pacemakers and implanted sensors monitoring major organ functions. The privacy implications are staggering — but count on convenience to win out over security concerns.
The beginning of the revolution will be signaled by the end of wires and cables — our infrastructure will transition to a completely wireless one, even on the supporting transmission systems. The concept of logging into anything will be a relic of technological history, as advanced biometrics uniquely identify you to any system, like your home, car, and office. Medical systems will become predictive rather than merely passive; many will decide to opt out of knowing they’re going to have a heart attack tomorrow. Home automation will be second nature, and cars may well drive themselves by then.
At every stage of development in mobile technology, we will see the familiar tug-of-war between privacy and convenience. Expect continued conflict with privacy issues, as technology takes over more of the mundane tasks in our lives. In the age-old conflict between privacy and convenience, always bet on convenience.
Editor's Note: In his 1991 novel Earth, physicist and author David Brin accurately predicted the rise of both the Internet and of mobile computing, and explored the privacy implications. His recent 2012 novel Existence makes new predictions about how these technologies will effect us in the coming decades; his track record with Earth suggests that Existence is worth checking out if you're interested in these trends (and it's a fun read).