What is the technology that goes into a smartphone? How much research, trial and error, and specialization had to go into the device you might be reading this on right now? A lot; far more than most people can comprehend. There are other articles and even books you should be reading when it comes to that subject, and you could study the subject for a lifetime. And yet there is so much more to come, and so much more to experiment with. Remember that smartphones, as we know them, have only been out for two decades, and that’s a generous estimate. And yet every year there have been major new developments that later become standard.
There is no reason to think the trend will change. On the contrary, now that there are billions of smartphone users, companies are heavily incentivized to spend whatever they can to create the next big thing. There are dozens of manufacturers and about half a dozen corporate giants producing smartphones. They all want to be at the top of the pack. Other than marketing, creating new and better products is how to do so. Even in the case of companies like Apple that have entrenched userbases, those userbases are not loyal if no improvements are made to the product.
In truth, your smartphone is a combination of many different technologies put together and made as small as possible so it fits in one device. Every feature deserves study, and we want to look at some of the things coming up in the future that you should be excited about or at least curious about.
Here’s everything to keep track of:
We are quite a ways off from true self-aware and sentient artificial intelligence. That might actually be a good thing, given the many disaster movies and science fiction novels on the subject. There are a lot of things to think about first, lest we have a robot uprising on our hands. However, the barrier to passing the Turing Test is thinning, and there are so many service requests and advanced needs on smartphones and websites (both desktop and mobile) that we’re going to need help. There are only so much companies are willing to pay for customer support, and there are only so many people that can do it.
So why not have virtual AI assistants, chatbots, and similar programs do it? Many requests are made every second. Far more than many companies could affordably support the staff to handle, especially smaller businesses. An AI or chatbot doesn’t demand a salary (yet) and it can answer basic questions well enough. At the very least, they can get a person started and start collecting information before an actual support agent steps in and solves the issue or request. They can fill the gap and help people with their smartphones.
However, the above is only one small part of the potential. AI and advanced automation programs can improve practically any service or app. With the right programming, AI does a few things extremely well. It can process people’s standard requests in record time, especially if there’s a playbook to work from. It can notice patterns and keep track of data. In an increasingly data-driven society and economy, an AI can let business owners and app designers know what needs doing, what customers want, and what features are used most often. This is already done to some extent, but more intelligent systems can alert managers to stats and trends they wouldn’t have even thought of.
You probably see recommendations and predicted requests on your smartphone all the time. Expect not only more of those, but more helpful ones and one more in line with your actual interests. Ideally, you’ll also be able to say how often you want to get such recommendations. You already see it to some degree, but expect the next level or generation of the technology in the coming few years. It might be a major update or it could be an incremental change.
Yet don’t fret entirely, it won’t entirely be about selling your stuff (though that will be a lot of it). When it comes to planning your day, getting all of your tasks done, and staying sane, AI on your smartphone can help as well. An AI program might remember to set the timer when you would normally be cooking a certain type of meal. It might nudge you to start reading or working on something now so that you’ll finish in time, based on the predicted length of the task. The possibilities are limitless, and once the technology is freely available and easy enough to develop with creators of apps and other programs alike will have the sky is the limit to help people with every task imaginable.
Smartwatches and fitness trackers, after perhaps a slightly slow start, have become quite popular. Millions upon millions of units are sold every year, and going out you likely see quite a few smartwatch-adorned wrists. So what is there to expect? While they aren’t smartphones specifically, they are reliant on them, and the two are growing ever closer as one will perform the tasks, connections, and measurements the other cannot. The first ones could collect fitness data and related statistics at less than perfect accuracy, but now we are getting much better peripherals that we can rely on for all but medical purposes. Expect further improvements to instruments and increased functionality.
Wearables can also be so much more than a smartwatch. What about a smart earring that can take in environmental data? A smart ring that functions much the same as a smartwatch, but has less bulk to it? A smart necklace that holds important information in case something happens to us? All are within the realm of possibility.
Let’s go one step further. What about a smart jacket that has sensors that provide data to your phone. From your phone you can use heating settings, or have your phone act in interesting ways with the jacket, perhaps getting a charge? Smart shoes that can get the most accurate walking data possible? All are in development at one stage or another, and you might be able to get them one day.
We have AR implemented in a lot of apps already. Yet doesn’t it feel that to the average user AR usage kind of peaked with Pokémon Go? What’s next, even though the mobile gaming market is certainly taking advantage of AR?
When we talk about AR, we naturally have to talk about developments in virtual reality as well, and what phones might be able to do with them. In truth, the mobility of phones isn’t as vital as VR. It’s not like you can go around walking the streets with a smartphone-powered VR headset strapped to your face, at least not if you expect to live terribly long. Yet there are still uses, and for people who may need to wait in a stationary room for a while, VR might offer the perfect diversion.
In some cases, there isn’t too much that’s truly innovative. Better graphics capabilities from smartphones allow for a more immersive graphic experience. While the cutting edge of VR will always be attached to desktops or dedicated machines, there will be innovations that make smartphone-based VR a lot more immersive and entertaining.
What is the cloud when it comes to smartphones? In the beginning, it was a nebulous concept that most people couldn’t explain, though now most tech-savvy people have some handle on it when it comes to everyday apps. Cloud storage allows for (hopefully) the safekeeping of important documents. Cloud computing allows for processes to be done that you would never want to do on your smartphone or laptop. There will even be more cloud streaming of games, perhaps allowing a smartphone (with a controller attachment in some cases) to be an amazing gaming device that plays the latest AAA hits.
Now that 5G is coming out, we can expect advancements in cloud technology that take as expected an improved connection across the board. They might be limited at the start (5G is not fully implemented yet), but more can be stored there without worry about inaccessibility. Larger files can be downloaded faster. Smartphones may no longer need to be the center point, which opens up more possibilities.
While almost everything we’ve talked about so far has sounded incredibly cool, what hasn’t been so cool is the rise in cybercrime over the past years. And smartphones are playing more and more of a factor in that. More can be done on smartphones, and smartphones hold more personal information than ever. In fact, there is probably no device you own that has more personal information than your smartphone. That means it's valuable, and that in turn means that cybercriminals are interested in it.
Exactly what improvements we’ll see might come down to what cybercriminals are focusing on and where the weak points lie. However, we might see improvements in general when it comes to making sure people are not leaking information themselves. It could be more regular reminders, more data and information encrypted by default, and additional security features. There might be better phone tracking features in case a phone gets broken.
A lot of features fall into the general category of “biometrics” but we are going to talk about things such as fingerprint scans, retina scans, and the like here.
When they first came out, let’s say they weren’t the greatest. People were afraid to use them for fear of getting locked out of their phones and still provided a PIN for that reason, making that the main method of access and the weakest security link.
Yet a lack of technology wasn’t necessarily the issue. We’ve had great retinal scans and fingerprint readers in security systems for some time now. The issue is bringing over the tech from those specialized devices into an all-in-one device to begin it, perhaps using a different type of scanner entirely to get the readings in the process. However, matters are improving. Readers are getting more accurate, and the software is getting similarly accurate and able to account for slightly different inputs (fingerprint angle, lighting, etc.).
Soon we will not only get more accurate reads that have more margin for error (safely, of course), but they will operate faster. If they can work near-instantaneously and without the user having to think, then people might use them for security instead of passcodes. That will result in not only safer phones, but an easier user experience.
Mobile payments started to take off more at the start of the pandemic, and it is still requiring adoption by businesses and large companies alike, but they are now getting cemented in the public mind and the business world.
There are currently three main contenders: Samsung Pay, Apple Pay, and Google Pay. All have their benefits and drawbacks, and all are somewhat limited by the hardware they are on and the hardware that takes the payments. Still, they’ve been proven to work and proven to be convenient to many.
Mobile payments will likely reach a critical mass much like credit and debit cards did (businesses that don’t accept credit cards effectively have to warn people these days). We also may integrate with online shopping systems for a more secure and simpler online shopping experience. There are incentives across the board for adoption, so expect a rapid ramp-up once it hits critical mass in the United States.
Everyone loves to personalize their stuff and their smartphone in particular. Whether it comes to backgrounds, the phone screen, or where apps are arranged, people love to be able to modify what they please. People don’t like to be thrown into the deep end, which is why we have default settings, but after people are used to the phone, they want to do more. Future smartphones will be able to do more, with better tech, and much more easily than before.
With other tech, there are options to customize to the ends of the earth if people want. Lights can have full cycles before returning to normal. Computers with some operating systems can do practically everything, and apps and programs help with that. It might be a niche interest depending on the device, but it is something users love to see, if not use.
Phones are next, and people will ideally be able to do whatever they want with their setups, apps, and aesthetics. We already saw it a bit with some Android updates and the “Material You” features. There will be limits based on security, the limitations of the hardware, and a few other factors, but ideally, those limits will only be felt by people at the extremes of what people want.
There will also be some soft limits to this. Much like how anyone can theoretically program a website to be whatever they want, people can create what they want as a background. Yet how many people will have the skill to fully utilize what the settings offer them? Will people be able to navigate all the required menus? There will be questions to ask, and fine-tuning of the features after they have been released.
We already have pressure-sensitive buttons and screens in other contexts, why not smartphones? It would add an entirely different metric of control to the process, and smartphone screens are getting durable enough to take the pressure despite what will inevitably be some overzealous users.
It will likely come across as an optional feature at first and then move on to be a standard feature for a more responsive smartphone. We already have options for how long someone holds down on an area of the screen, this is just one step further.
The pandemic, tragic as the entire affair was, did speed quite a few things along when it came to the adoption of certain practices and technologies. People had to get used to remote work and get used to it quickly, and smartphones were a large part of that.
And remote work has been rising, and we aren’t going completely back to where we were. Sure, there will be people who go back to the office either full or part-time, but in other cases, it was clearly proven that the job could be done remotely with no loss in performance. And if a company doesn’t have to pay for office space and employees are happier, what’s not to love?
As a result, we are going to see more features and apps (and app features) devoted to helping remote workers get more done in a more convenient, comfortable, and efficient way. We may not be fully at the stage where we can expect too much innovation in this field just yet; instead, we will get the perfection of existing apps and options.
For a while, the mobile game was rather limited. It was equivalent to or worse than the average dedicated mobile game of the time, and the mechanics weren’t much to write home about. It was mostly tapping things and paying microtransactions to watch numbers go up, sometimes with other players and sometimes not.
There are still those games, of course, and many people genuinely enjoy them, but we have more to choose from and single-player experiences that can equal what many people play on consoles or on their computers. In some cases, they are simple ports of those games, and many mobile games are now ported to the desktop.
There are even games that take advantage of the features of smartphones to create a new experience, if not a perfect one. Pokémon Go was a huge hit that got people out in the world (before the pandemic got people back in the home), and there have been other huge innovations that take things such as other AR uses, the touchscreen, and the microphone that’s on every smartphone. Mobile games have become something in and of themselves as opposed to a cheaper alternative to console and computer games, and with the amount of investment in some companies, we are sure to see bigger and better options (and some trash, of course).
And video games feature heavily in the future of smartphones. Billions of people play games on their smartphones, and gaming is a huge revenue driver, usually the largest revenue driver on a given app store. Just look at the total mobile gaming revenue over the past few years:
A simple progression of the medium would be enough to get many people excited, and yet there’s more. Cloud gaming is coming, if not perfect. There are controller attachments that allow someone to have full control of a console game with the portability of a smartphone, making for a great experience in many respects. There are still limits given the ping rate and processing time of the cloud, so it doesn’t work in all cases. As 5G gets implemented in more places, the cloud gets faster, and systems get more stable, it is a likelihood that gaming on phones will become a more viable option for many. We might even see more uses for VR peripherals in the future. Game developers are often willing to try out new things, especially when there are huge leaps to be made.
Aesthetics can matter a lot, especially for a device that we look at for literally hours each day. Ugly devices don’t tend to last long in the tech space when there’s an alternative unless it’s for a specialist device like a rugged smartphone. And while a case (which people should get no matter the phone) can allow for a lot more personalization, it only goes so far when it comes to the shape of the phone and how the hardware looks on it.
Given the amount of money, smartphones bring in, only the best and brightest in the industry will come to make the final designs on the smartphones we use today. Sure, it might look like a thin rectangular box, and to some degree it is, but there are so many small decisions that can go into it. The fine details matter at that level and the design also must take into consideration the special needs of the phone. A thin phone requires thin parts, for example, which might not be so easy to work with.
But the physical devices are only part of the equation. The user experience is key when using a smartphone. Given the number of interactions one makes on a smartphone, even saving 1/10th of a second per interaction can make a big difference in someone’s day. Times this by multiple occurrences, and designers are regularly looking for ways to make the process of using a phone more seamless. The more it is an extension of one’s body and thoughts, the better.
What can we expect from future tech and this, especially when designers are currently not too limited by what users can do? We might see faster response times, more items along the line of predictive text, and ways to get more settings and apps available to the user in just a few swipes without cluttering the screen. Sometimes too many icons just make someone look for what they need. It will be a combination of different options, what people want, and what developers can come up with.
On some phones, there are gesture controls, often built for people who have fine motor movement issues or for people who might not want to touch a screen at a given time. They’re fascinating, and you should give them a try if you can. Yet there are still a few issues to work out in terms of tracking. While leaps and bounds have been made in everything from made tracking to hand movements (this work has been going on for decades, after all), we might still be a few years off before a combination of this and better AI knows exactly what we mean, whether we mean it, and how to best follow our commands as a result. However, when it does happen, it opens up a whole new world of possibilities when it comes to apps.
Motion controls will likely become more helpful, responsive, and integrated into apps as well. A quick tilt could be input and combined with other inputs and information the smartphone’s directional sensors could become more vital than ever. Reorienting the screen is one thing, while fine-tuning aiming during a game or finding new ways to aid AR apps could be the next big thing. In some cases, we’re already halfway there.
And when it comes to the standard swipes and taps we’re all used to, we can expect they will get more precise and responsive as well. There will hopefully be fewer mistypes, and easier correcting of mistakes if you do. You might even get more of the feedback that you might expect from a physical keyboard when you start typing if you want such a thing.
Let’s get the relatively boring stuff out of the way. You will get incremental improvements when it comes to processing power, storage space, and speed. The display will likely get a smidge bigger on the latest phones, or at least the average resolution and refresh rate will go up. Phones will be able to get brighter, battery permitting. You’ll even get more RAM, as unexciting as that might seem.
Alternatively, what you might notice is that the cutting edge of today becomes the affordable of tomorrow, and so on. Not everyone can get the latest iPhone, but often they do not need to. What was once impressive is now the average and mainstream, and that can happen in a matter of months. This trend will continue until smartphones are no longer made.
Battery life is a huge bottleneck when it comes to smartphone development. For the most part, we have bigger and brighter screens and computing technology that can run amazing apps. But if you max out everything else on a smartphone, it might have a four-hour battery life. That would be unacceptable to most users, so compromises must be made.
However, there are two parts to the equation. First, professionals in the field need to develop a type of battery that will vastly outpace everything that is out currently, and make that both relatively safe and able to fit in a smartphone without issue. Then that battery type needs to be affordable enough to produce what one can. A battery made of materials too rare won’t work. It’s a more complex problem than one might think for the reasons above.
So, what do we have currently that we might look forward to? There are some hopeful developments in nanomachine batteries that can charge at an extremely rapid rate. With larger smartphones, some companies are trying to simply fit larger batteries into those phones. In other cases, scientists are looking at ways that a smartphone’s battery doesn’t degrade so much over time. Most promising is the technology involving graphene, but it is very expensive to produce, making it unavailable at scale.
Alternatively, if we cannot improve our batteries, what about improving charging methods? One can improve the rate of charge to make charging less of a hassle or burden. Some methods are already better than others, but perhaps batteries or ports could be designed to take charge faster without risk of damage. Engineers are working on all these questions now. Incremental improvements are expected.
Wireless charging has also been a thing for some time now, though it has mostly been relegated to pads (helpful as they are). What about true wireless charging, in zones that have a field that could charge the phone? It sounds like the stuff of science fiction, but it is entirely in the realm of possibility. It will not be nearly as efficient as any other method, but its passivity of it could mean that a restaurant or café could act as a wireless charging station, making the phone last longer on charge all day.
How much lighter and sturdier can we make phones, if we want to? And how much lighter would we want them to be? We don’t want them to float off, after all. There is a desire for better materials to make our phones with, even if most consumers don’t realize it. The materials result in better phones, which people know they want. Not only this, but those better materials can have uses elsewhere in the realm of technology.
There are a lot of things scientists and engineers are working on, and many projects are promising. But we don’t want to spend all day talking about hypotheticals and jargon you’d need three degrees to understand. Note, however, that the main questions come down to the same ones as using better batteries. Can the materials properly work with a smartphone that will see all sorts of use in all types of environments, and can whatever engineers come up with as a solution be affordably mass-produced at scale? We might see some super-high-end smartphones come out that allow for the use of such materials, but you and I would not be affected.
However, there is no doubt that we will see improved materials soon, and we will have sturdier, lighter, and hopefully longer-lasting smartphones as a result. After all, there are few things so tragic as a new smartphone falling from our hands onto the floor, hearing a cracking sound before we pick up our device.
Foldables are still a niche market when it comes to smartphones. There are only a few real options, and they are preposterously expensive for what to many comes down to a gimmick. Screens are large enough now to handle most of the content people would want to watch mobile while remaining comfortable to look at, and phones are still portable enough despite this that the desire for a smaller, more portable phone isn’t a huge selling point.
It comes down to hinges to a degree, but hinges that are both so small and so reliable that they never have to get brought into question. After all, if a phone folds and unfolds, it's going to get folded and unfolded a lot. The first models that came out were not as sturdy as people liked, meaning that this and the high price gave them the status as a specialty item or novelty. Now that we’re a few generations in, that has somewhat changed and foldable phones are becoming more mainstream if still niche. The screens seem more seamless, the designs are getting both more intuitive and more innovative, and designers are getting more used to what they can do with a foldable phone that can either have multiple screens or one huge screen.
Yet what about a phone that does more than that? What about a phone that can be whatever size and shape you want it to be? Phones that freely stretch and bend are a bit further off, though they are far more innovative and interesting. We don’t have much of the tech for that yet, but it would increase the versatility of smartphones by a great deal, and possibly their durability depending on the design. There will still be limitations (properties of matter and all that), but there might be a revolution leading to something like the shift from flip phones to what we have today.
As the new comes in, some of the old ways and tech has to go. You can’t keep a new and old camera on the same phone. Components that once made sense can quickly go out of vogue. Some apps are meant to combine and replace others. A new OS feature could make some apps obsolete on day one. Even things such as ports and types of chips will go if they aren’t used or they are holding back other features. Remember how Apple removed the headphone jack, much to the chagrin of many users? That sort of change is entirely possible.
In many cases, though, if the users cry loud enough that they want something back, it’ll be brought back. Or those users will go to a phone brand that has it. The future will come, but sometimes market demand is the one on both the brakes and the gas pedal.
Interestingly, there are currently more and more important debates about ports and standards for smartphones going on in Europe. A universal standard would be a leap for smartphones in terms of accessibility, though one worries about the potential for advancement and how quickly regulations could change in a quickly changing technological landscape.
It’s hard to say what could go next, but we would recommend looking at what is coming and seeing if there are any redundancies.
When is a smartphone no longer a smartphone? It’s an important question to ask, though whatever device it is, people are likely to keep buying it. Right now we define the devices we are talking about via their ability to make calls and text, otherwise, we’d mostly call today’s smartphones smaller, more expensive tablets. Yet with the advancement of WiFi and data-plan-driven calling, the standard cell and texting service isn’t as necessary as it was before. It wouldn’t be too hard to imagine a world where we leave behind a lot of cell phone plans instead of data plans if it weren’t for the fact that the providers are one and the same.
Alternatively, the smartphone might merge with something else and take a different form. While it probably won’t look like it does in the movies unless those movies inspired the designers in the first place, and there will be a transition period and hiccups, it’s possible. Remember pagers? The smartphone could be the pager of the future.
We may not have anything resembling smartphones in two decades, and that’s perfectly ok. We might move into all-in-one devices that can extend into tablets or laptops as we need them, or plug into hubs as we have already seen with some devices. The future may be voice-activated or thought-activated if we’re feeling extremely futuristic and ambitious. Everything a smartphone does could perhaps be condensed into a smartwatch, with a virtual screen to interact with for those larger views and interactions.
With all that in mind, open your mind to the possibilities listed above, and see where your imagination takes you. Those who adapt to the new and popular first will have an advantage. Take it and use it.
Smartphones and mobile devices have shaped the last two decades, and they will shape the next two as well. Despite all of the advancements we have seen thus far, there is still so much we can do and so much innovation to come. We hope that we have gotten you thinking about your smartphone and what it might look like in the coming years, and well and excited for what you might be able to do. In truth, there is little you can do on a personal scale to affect these trends one way or another, but do look out for them and be an early adopter if you think they will improve your life.