Five signs the mobile phone form factor is maxed out

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 |


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

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  • Out of control?

    Reading this as my first news story of the day I think not so much "maxed out" as "out of control". Is it "innovation" of madness to add "interactive projection displays" and 41 megapixel cameras from one of the world's most expensive manufacturers to a telephone? On-person hardware is indeed "set to explode," perhaps just as the 16,000 people perish behind the wheel while texting (when they could instead focus on their driving while chatting with Siri).

    I think we may have gone a little crazy with our mobile devices. Is that possible?
    Thad McIlroy, The Future of Publishing
    • Ugh, I'm getting sick of statistical manipulation

      A. The stats DON'T show 16k fatalities from texting. They show that in 16k fatalities investigators determined, sometimes from admission, and more often NOT,that an involved party was texting.

      B. If you want an ACTUAL statistic, no interpretation AT ALL. Since the widespread availability of SMS messaging, total vehicle fatalities are are down 30%, and fatalities per VMT are down 33%.
    • The projector has a use...

      As evidenced by the current generation camcorders with the ability to project up to a 60" image to show whats been recorded. It would be nice to be able to flip that on and show off images captured by 8+ MP cameras. Particularly in the business sector where power point rules. How nice would it be to be using a Atrix/Photon running Ubuntu and be able to only need a single device to carry to meetings?
    • It's not 16,000

      It's OK
      Thad McIlroy, The Future of Publishing
      • heh

        heh, wow - have an identity crisis much ;)?

        You realize you just chastised YOURSELF, right?
  • Maxed out....

    Yep - I think the article is right. Look at the speculation for the iPad3 as well - it's really just about minor bumps (better screen, maybe a longer battery life etc.).

    Mind you, the software side still has an enormous way to go - as does ubiquitous network coverage. I've hardly used Siri since I got my 4S as there's rarely enough 3G to use it.
  • I Saw It Coming....

    I just knew you'd somehow find a way to work Android fragmentation into this somehow. In other news, of course the mobile form factor is maxed out, there aren't many form factors that a mobile phone can take. Amazingly enough, the candy bar/slate form is the one that best fits in a hand. Duh!
  • Old claim, new author

    Ok, it appears that Charles Holland Duell (USPTO commissioner in 1899) didn't actually say "Everything that can be invented has been invented", but now Chris Jablonski has said it about mobile phones. Not smart.
    • Smeg. Ninja'd.

      *Reloads the Ninja-traps*
  • Android vendors focus on what is right about iOS and do more than Google

    The reason they are experimenting with hardware, is that they are not thinking software. And I am not talking about the features you refer to, all of which are good and only going to expand in a very open, fertile and chaotic Droid universe. The top 4 vendors should get together and solve for the missing software layers above Google (since the latter doesn't share the same perspective as they do) that make Droid ecosystem superior to Apple's. Personally, I see an explosion in virtualization of hardware features to adapt to human input/output sensory. But that isn't scalable and profitable today. Instead they should focus on "exchanges" and interoperability solutions that let users cut across network, device and application silos and let the users of information connect better with the producers. Obviously, just like with Apple, these exchanges should generate transaction fees (albeit much much lower) that provide a residual revenue stream to the device vendor, which can also be an incentive to keep people up to date on latest device software upgrades to capture long and short tails of applications and content.
  • Innovations is not a fast food industry

    There are only a hand full of innovators and only a handful of them are picked up on the radar bleep of big companies. Add to this that most of the big players don't innovate but just extrapolate, repackage or do minor face lifts on products already on the market. Also, I think "innovations" by nature don't turn up at every show. Before an innovation comes about, living with the current crop of products and services has to happen in order for those people whose neurons and synapses meshed into that innovative streak spark a remarkable idea. Maybe we're too much of a fast food delivery, instant gratification society to wait out the true jewels. Just a thought. Nicolas
    • 3 Gates of Acceptance

      1) Is it desirable?
      2) Is it technologically possible?
      3) Will it fly with the target demographic?

      The last one is the one that really decides how successful a product will be, but it is heavily dependant upon what came before it.

      If Apple had released the iPhone before all the other PDAs, WM phones, etc, no one would have wanted it, but because there were a large number of early adopters for the earlier technology, it only required a tweak here or there to be ready to 'cross the chasm' to mass acceptance.

      Because of the need to have a lot of early adopters already on board with new ideas (conceptually, at least), any radical new technology will not be introduced to the masses suddenly, otherwise it is like planting lawn in the desert - infertile ground.

      Mass acceptance of innovation is always evolutionary - just a little ahead of where the masses currently are.
  • Nonsense Stats?

    "Federal data suggests there have been 16,000 deaths nationwide due to texting while driving."

    Excuse Me!?

    Deaths in the US were about 40K per years in the later 90s. Texting wasn't happening then. Now it's down to about 35K per year. Are the people putting this out saying deaths would be down to about 20K per years without texting. In other words that traffic deaths would have declined by 1/2 over 15 years if not for texting?

    Now you look at the number of deaths due to drunk driving in the last few years and it seems to be about 14K per year. Which means that (ignore there will be some overlap) that, if you buy into the 16K number, almost all non drinking related deaths are due to texting.

    Give me a break.

    I really doubt it.
    • Read the stats properly.

      the 16k deaths is TOTAL, since stats began, not 16k in the last year.
    • May well be true, but need the complete list of causes

      It may be that texting may have replaced one or more other distraction-type causes.

      But then:
      a) Why do you ignore the overlap? It could be significant.
      b) There may have been a significant reduction in non-alcohol death causes.
  • Good lord.

    Get REAL. This reminds me of the Patent Office saying that it was time to close because everything useful had been invented.

    As technology gets better and smaller, you'll be able to pack more into that 3x5x0.5 inches of real estate; the fact that iPwns and clones EXIST is proof of that. The limiting factor here is not the space; it's big enough for an adequate display to use while walking around, and it's big enough to incorporate a useable keyboard for those who MUST have one.

    The limitation here is NOT the form factor; that is defined by the need to be convenient for humans to use. It doesn't matter WHAT the device is; if it needs to be portable, those who design it will be pressured to build within some convenient form factor. This is why flashlights are generally cylindrical and less than 2"x10", this is why laptops are generally around 1"x10"x14", this is why lighters are the size and shape they are. Anything much outside those limitations and a thing becomes inconvenient to carry and use, and it gets left behind.

    The limitation now is only technology. As processors become more powerful and power efficient, we'll be able to have a portable device which we can talk to and can actually talk back in a useful fashion. As pico projectors become more economical, their technology will become the de-facto answer to the "too-small screen" issue. Incorporate the recently developed laser-projective keyboard technology and add a "touchpad" area as well, and now you have a device which you can keep in your pocket but still serve the functionality of a laptop for at least half the possible users. This would be a game-changer.

    These are suggestions that reflect current technology; things which could be a reality in a year or five. I bet there are people out there who have a lot bigger imagination than I do; I'm pretty sure they can come up with something far grander to add to this "used-up form-factor". All this stuff takes time; in the meantime, it has to be developed. And right now, this is the form it will have to take, because this is the form that fits human beings.

    Your article boils down to nothing; it is useless fist-waving at the technology we take for granted. What you really need to take a pot-shot at is the carriers, who insist on chopping up all this fabulous technology into ever-finer granular bits, and trying to charge us for every bit individually. Funny thing; no matter what it is or which carrier, you can get the best of everything they have to offer for around the same $100 per month, and the same $100-200 cash outlay for the phone. Only the names of those in the Billing Dept are changed to protect the guilty. ;)

    • weak article

      Yep! Nuf said!
  • Not a ceiling so much as a cloud deck ...

    There's a difference between the kind of non-innovative design periods that happen when people are feverishly racing to beat each other to the next marketing coup and not taking the time to truly think through the next innovation ... and the kind of hard ceiling that happens when a technology has truly reached its maximum capability. Forks have changed little in ages for a reason ... they don't need to do more than they do. Smart phones are not at that point yet ... NO one cells the smart phone I want yet ... not because they can't, but because they're in such a darned hurry to steal Apple's thunder that they aren't taking the time to truly innovate.

    I've been using cell phones for 18 years, and there's still plenty smart phone creators can do to make these devices more truly useful. What I see now is a mad dash to cram more stuff into phones, whether it's the stuff we need or not. That will pass as cooler heads in isolated locations begin to think "What do people REALLY want next". But the market needs to work through it's "stupid but fast" phase of development before this will happen.

    When you've seen enough different products go through their life cycles, you'll realize that some celings aren't ceilings, but merely cloud layers that are "cause to pause", but nothing more. The real developments that will take smart phones to their next stage of development are out there. And when designers and marketers realize that their panicked attempts to dazzle us didn't work, and they settle down and get serious, they will do things that impress and interest us. Stay tuned.
  • Recognizable?

    Are you suggesting that my next phone might be recognizable as a phone? That I might be able to use it the same day I buy it? Is that legal?
  • A Phone is a Phone by any other name

    What about a phone which WORKS?
    Good reception/transmission/voice/quality/battery life?
    Maybe a low-end camera to snap occasional pictures, like a car accident scene.
    And an expanded contact list, with full name/address besides phone numbers.
    I know, I could get a lower-end smart phone which does all of that.
    Except for the bundling (mandatory) of data services. I thought bundling was illegal (remember the IBM decision way back?)