Five signs the mobile phone form factor is maxed out

Summary:Smartphones are ubiquitous and capable, but the innovation ceiling has been reached.

Mobile World Congress 2012 wrapped up today in Barcelona, Spain and from the looks of it, the latest crop of mobile devices failed to impress with their homogeneous displays, processors, and mind-boggling app selection. ZDNet Chief Larry Dignan declares, "The big takeaway here is that smartphone makers are competing on hardware specs that can be emulated by others in short order."

Similarly, ZDNet's James Kendrick laments:

Hopefully some company will come along and produce something to catch us by surprise. Something radically different from all the other phones that rekindles the excitement we all felt about smartphones not that long ago. It’s not clear what that might be, but a giant 5-inch phone doesn’t seem to be it.

While smartphones are becoming ever more capable and just about everyone has one (or two), they've reached the ceiling of innovation because of the limitations imposed by their changeless form factor. Battery and display technologies are constrained, which means manufacturers can't pack anything more into phones without sacrificing performance. While the software side looks brighter, the Android platform is becoming more fragmented, making it hard for developers to keep up.

Then there's the growing consumer class "big data" problem. Mobile users are receiving millions of emails, status updates, news reports and other alerts each day. The data avalanche is no match for a user trying to stay on top of it all with a gadget in one hand and a latte or steering wheel in the other. (Federal data suggests there have been 16,000 deaths nationwide due to texting while driving.)

Here are three more signs that the smartphone form factor has hit the innovation ceiling:

  • Micro projectors, massive cameras, flexible screens, and other dubious add-ons are the final frontier. Some smartphones double as other devices with great success, such as GPS receivers. But do you really need a 41-megapixel Carl Zeiss camera on your phone? Or how about the Samsung Galaxy Beam, the vendor's second attempt at a device with integrated pico projector. I'm all for new features--I recently wrote about how a new tiny temperature sensor could find its way into phones. But all such features are still at the mercy of the handheld form factor.

  • Voice recognition system and interactive projection displays are decoupling computing from the various boxes and devices we call computers. Siri may have yet to prove itself, and gestural computing on-the-go is pretty far off. But many, like visionaries at frog design, say computing is poised to transcend the physical limits of devices to provide flexible, externalized resources distributed throughout a space. Spatial operating systems could help make it work.

  • On-person hardware is set to explode, providing the surprise we've been craving. Google's recent decision to sell head-up display (HUD) glasses later this year caused a bit of a stir, and there's no telling if the idea will flop or change the game. But Google is not alone in this endeavor. In fact, HUD displays are commonly used in the military and for industrial purposes, so what is to stop them from trickling into the mass market? Moreover, retinal displays are also in development. If you want cool eyeglass technology sooner, Pivothead video-glasses are due out next month. They'll allow you to record anything you are looking at in high quality. Some futurists envision all of this evolving towards microscopic, wireless, implantable devices linking neural activity directly to electronic circuitry.
  • Companies like Google are developing head-up displays for the consumer market (Credit Sellingpix | Dreamstime.com)

Related:

Why the future of mobile is screenless, touchless TI's contact-less temperature sensor opens up possibilities Exploring use cases for electronic clothes New T-rays could lead to Star Trek 'Tricorder' medical scanners Successful test for electronic contact lens

Topics: Smartphones, Hardware, Mobility

About

Christopher Jablonski is a freelance technology writer. Previously, he held research analyst positions in the IT industry and was the manager of marketing editorial at CBS Interactive. He's been contributing to ZDNet since 2003. Christopher received a bachelor's degree in business administration from the University of Illinois at U... Full Bio

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