What will the smartphone of the future look like? It probably won't look much different than it does today. But the role it plays in our lives may be considerably different.
Think mini engine in your pocket.
At least that's the concept offered by many mobile experts at the MobileBeat conference in San Francisco last week. The talk at the conference was all about wearables-as in, miniaturized mobile technology embedded in glasses and watches, even woven into clothes. But wearable technology can run into the trouble of computing power and battery life. There just isn't enough space, experts say.
That's where the smartphone comes into play.
Smartphones: The Brains of Wearable Tech
Maybe wearables will become mere sensors and displays that send and receive information to and from the smartphone, which, in turn, does the heavy lifting and manages the connection to cloud services. "I think that the phone is becoming more central and more important," Jef Holove, CEO at smart watch maker Basis Point, told the crowd at MobileBeat.
The smartphone-as-server device would be a significant shift from the evolution of smartphones. After the debut of the iPhone, Apple and Android device makers engaged in a hardware features race, trying to one-up each other with every new release. Higher screen resolutions. Better cameras. Bigger screens. The high-water mark just might be the Samsung Galaxy S4 unveiled in March.
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Already we're seeing signs that point to a slowdown in this race.
Earlier this year, Apple's Tim Cook downplayed hardware: "We're not a hardware company," he said at Goldman Sachs Technology and Internet conference. Cook has said Apple has an increased focus on software and services, even as rumors swirl about a future iWatch and new products coming this fall.
Embattled BlackBerry is also singing a similar tune after slashing prices of the BlackBerry Z10, which has had sluggish sales. "We've never been a devices-only company," says CEO Thorsten Heins. "We also run a global secure data network and services business. And we don't plan to run the company with a short-term device-only strategy."
When smartphone makers sound like they're pulling back from the venerable smartphone, at least where it concerns more hardware features, it's a good bet there's a change in the wind.
If wearables are the future, however, it's a technological certainty today that they'll lack the battery life and processing power to do all the things that we expect from our smartphone-and still be cheap enough to purchase.
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"Having cellular connectivity built into wearables is just a wasted resource when you already have the communications capabilities in your smartphone," says Van Baker, research vice president at Gartner. "Connect to the smartphone via Bluetooth, and send and receive what you need via the smartphone's Internet connectivity."
By offloading processing and connectivity onto a smartphone, the cost of wearables will be cheaper, even more so considering the price of sensors keeps dropping. Pioneering wearables today handle processing and connectivity, Baker says, and the products are already too costly. In the future smartphone-wearables relationship, a single smartphone can handle multiple wearable devices.
Have the Smartphone Wars Only Just Begun?
Baker is quick to point out that the smartphone's potential role with wearables doesn't mean that the smartphone hardware race is over. He says he believes smartphones will get more and more capable. They'll also need faster processors and more memory to drive wearables. The only gating factor is battery life.
"Saying the hardware race is over is akin to saying personal computers will never need more than 640K of memory," Baker says, referring to the controversy over whether or not Bill Gates said, "640K should be enough for anybody," at a computer trade show in 1981.
Is the smartphone hardware-features race over? Will wearables take over the sensors and display? One thing is for certain: If the smartphone is also the engine that drives wearables, we'll need our mobile devices more than ever.
Tom Kaneshige covers Apple, BYOD and Consumerization of IT for CIO.com. Follow Tom on Twitter @kaneshige. Follow everything from CIO.com on Twitter @CIOonline, Facebook, Google + and LinkedIn. Email Tom at firstname.lastname@example.org
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