2008 has been a revolutionary year for the mobile industry. 2009 looks set to be equally exciting, albeit in a slightly more destructive way.
It was clear a year ago that the mobile industry was about to be shaken up by the rise of mobile Linux, which opened up the previously closed world of mobile operating systems and gave new entrants, such as Google, a foot in the door. With one handset widely available and many more expected in the first half of next year, Android has created a buzz and is being taken seriously.
However, a year ago the industry could not have predicted the severity of the recession in which it now finds itself.
Before even considering the technological advances that could appear in 2009, one has to take into account the financial state of the mobile industry. Major manufacturers such as Motorola and, to a lesser extent, Sony Ericsson, are arguably on the brink of disaster. Even Nokia, the market leader, has had to seriously downgrade its forecasts. None of this invites investment in new technologies that do not have a proven business case.
One casualty of the current financial climate is likely to be so-called 4G — either the long-term evolution (LTE) of 3G, or WiMax, depending on where you are in the world. Both are rip-out-and-replace successors to 3G and, while one or both will likely succeed in the long term, neither will find funding for any kind of premature success in 2009. Users want faster mobile-broadband speeds, but HSDPA is probably good enough for now — certainly to the extent that consumers are unlikely to pay a premium for using a new technology.
Another victim could well be near-field communications (NFC), the short-range wireless technology that is used in travel smartcards, access systems and some bank cards. The mobile industry is very keen to get NFC into handsets, so mobile phones can replace travelcards and debit cards, but doing so remains relatively expensive for manufacturers. A concerted industry push may drive down the cost and make NFC feasible for phones, but 2009 is unlikely to be the year in which to do it to any significant degree.
Paying by phone
One technology much more likely to push through into the mainstream consciousness during 2009 is mobile payments — buying train tickets and other items through the handset. The UK's rail industry recently agreed a new standard that will make it possible for barcode-based 'tickets' to be sent to most currently used mobiles. It is the exploitation of existing handsets' capabilities that makes such technology more viable for the coming year.
Some other technologies may also become more prevalent because they augment what is already in the handset. A prime example is the inbuilt-compass — once you have GPS in a wide variety of phones, as you now do, why not add direction to location? It has been done in countries such as Japan for a while, and 'western' devices may...
... soon include such technology. Adding a compass to GPS, browsers and inbuilt cameras makes it possible to really exploit geotagging by pointing at, say, a statue, photographing it and automatically finding out what it is. The potential for targeted advertising is huge, which may be one reason why a compass is included inside the Google Android T-Mobile G1 phone.
Economy aside, the biggest wildcard in mobile technology in 2009 will be the browser. Gone are the days where you take what comes with the phone — except, perhaps, on the iPhone. Opera is fast becoming, for the mobile, what Firefox is for the desktop: the de-facto upstart — although it would be worthwhile to keep an eye on a new entrant, Skyfire. However, Google's Chrome is likely to go mobile soon, under the auspices of Android, and Firefox itself will attack the smallest screen in the form of Fennec. Assuming Mozilla has overcome the memory footprint issues that plagued early iterations of mobile Firefox, Fennec could do very well on the back of its desktop cousin's reputation.
The applications that run through those browsers will also evolve during the coming year. The beauty of the cloud is that the access device is becoming increasingly irrelevant, so serious, browser-based business tools are likely to mushroom during 2009.
Another area to watch will be that of the touchscreen. It is fair enough, by this point, to see the touchscreen as the way forward for all mobile devices — although there is something to be said for avoiding a touchscreen so as to save battery life — but it is the winning type that will be interesting to see. We are already very used to resistive touchscreens, as used in countless Windows Mobile phones over the past six or seven years, but the success of the iPhone has shown the world how much fun can be had with the capacitive variety.
Each type has its own strength — resistive screens are very useful for functions such as cut-and-paste, for example, but capacitive screens, which rely on the electrical charge of the user's fingers rather than pressure, make multi-touch functionality possible. Not many phones currently use capacitive touchscreens — the most prominent at the moment are the iPhone and the G1 — but others may appear in the coming year.
There is now even a third type of touchscreen, in the form of that used by RIM in its BlackBerry Storm handset. This variant uses a central pivot to allow proper tactile, audible clicks, but presents potential problems such as slowing down the user's typing speed. The success of the Storm, and RIM's decisions next year as to whether this clickable screen should find its way into further devices, will tell whether this flavour of the technology has a future.
Overall, 2009 will be the year of building on what we already have, with few new ideas finding the funding for exploitation.