From smartphones to super-smartphones

Mobile handsets may be able to offer you tips on improving your telephone manner one day, says Symbian's executive vice president of research, David Wood
Written by David Wood, Contributor

What's the rate of improvement of mobile phones? Disconcertingly, the answer is both "surprisingly fast" and "surprisingly slow".

As a fan of rich mobile access to information and communications, I like the first answer and I worry about the second. The first answer reflects the incredible energy and creativity of the mobile phone industry. The second answer reflects some deep-seated challenges. The good news is that there are things we can do to address these challenges.

It's now more than six years since the first smartphones reached the shops. But in the intervening years, they have grown in overall capability by a factor of 10 at least. For example, they're now 10 times as powerful, store 10 times as much data, contain 10 times as many application features, and display 10 times as many pixels on their screens. Much of this increase has been driven by Moore's Law. Six years is long enough to contain four "Moore's Law generations" of 18 months apiece, meaning that the raw silicon power could double four times. That equates to a 16-fold overall increase in power.

In principle, the next six years should see a similar increase in the capabilities of smartphones. The mobile phones of 2012 should be at least another 10 times as powerful, feature-packed, useful and valuable. "Smartphones" will hardly be the word for them — "supersmart" would be more suited. In comparison, even the best phones of today will look, well, quaint.  It's hard to contemplate the kinds of applications that these supersmart phones will enable.

But here are a few possibilities:

  • Phones whose cameras can scan text written in foreign languages and foreign character sets, and which can connect to network servers to provide instantaneous translations
  • Phones whose cameras can recognise the face of someone you are approaching, and which can remind you of the context of your previous meetings
  • Phones that can analyse your conversations, and in due course even give you advice on how to fare better in similar encounters in the future

However, a series of major challenges stand in opposition to the swift, continuing increase in mobile technology. I call them "horsemen of the apocalypse". They include fire, flood, plague and warfare. "Fire" is the challenge of coping with the heat generated by batteries running ever faster. Alas, batteries don't follow Moore's Law. As users demand more work from their smartphones, their battery lifetimes will tend to plummet. The solution involves close inter-working of new hardware technology (including multi-core processors) and highly sophisticated low-level software. Together, this can reduce the voltage required by the hardware, and the device can avoid catching fire as it performs its incredible calculations.

"Flood" is the challenge of coping with enormous quantities of additional software. Each individual chunk of new software adds value, but when they coalesce in large quantities, chaos breaks loose: software projects delay almost indefinitely in their integration phase (think of Windows Longhorn), and users struggle to find their favourite functionality among seething masses of menu options. As summarised in Brooks' Law (which ought to be as famous as Moore's): "Adding manpower to a late software project makes it later". Like the problem of fire, flood requires more than just money or people to solve the problems it presents. It requires the right core software architecture, which allows add-on software to co-exist harmoniously.

"Plague" is the threat of the destabilisation of the network by viruses and spam. Poor security could lead to the disintegration of the wireless network. Equally worrying, the fear of poor security could lead the network owners to lock down access to their networks, hindering the open introduction of the innovative new services that would otherwise build, unpredictable step by unpredictable step, into the smartphone assets most valued by users. Like both fire and flood, plague requires the right software architecture, implementing platform-level security: a security system that works even without users having to understand it.  With platform security in place the industry can benefit from both security and openness, and mobile technology can continue to improve quickly.

This mention of openness takes me to "warfare". This is the most subtle of the challenges, but the one with the biggest impact. I'll take a moment to explain it. A good starting point is the comment made by Monitor's Bhaskar Chakravorti in his book, The slow pace of fast change, when he playfully dubbed a certain phenomenon as "Demi Moore's Law". The phenomenon is that technology's impact in an inter-connected marketplace often proceeds at only half the pace predicted by Moore's Law. The reasons for this slower-than-expected impact are well worth pondering:

  • New applications and services in a networked marketplace depend on simultaneous changes being co-ordinated at several different points in the value chain
  • Although the outcome would be good for everyone if all players kept on investing in making the required changes, these changes make much less sense when viewed individually

Sometimes this situation is called "the prisoner's dilemma".

The most interesting (and valuable) smartphone services will require widespread joint action within the mobile industry, including maintaining openness to new ideas, new methods and new companies. It also requires a spirit of "co-operate before competing". If adjacent players in the still-formative smartphone value chain focus on fighting each other for dominance in our current small pie, it will prevent the stage-by-stage emergence of killer new services that will make the pie much larger for everyone's benefit.

Thankfully, although the network effects of a complex marketplace can act to slow down the emergence of new innovations, while that market is still being formed it can have the opposite effect once all the pieces of the smartphone open virtuous cycle have learned to collaborate with maximum effectiveness. When that happens, the pace of mobile change can even exceed that predicted by Moore's Law. That's my vision for smartphones in the next six years.

Biography: David Wood is executive vice president of research at smartphone operating system specialist Symbian

    Editorial standards