The future portable device

At the moment there are an array of portable electronic devices that people carry round with them. Most people carry a mobile phone, many carry an MP3 player, lots carry a gaming machine and quite a few carry a camera. Nowadays many of these devices are multifunction, for instance most phones incorporate a camera and play games. The problem is that they don’t do the subsidiary tasks as well as a dedicated device. But this is changing with devices like the iPhone and Sony Ericsson K850i which are as good as a dedicated devices at more than one task.

So there is a change in philosophy as manufacturers try and make genuine multi function devices. They are going to be helped by some very important technology changes that are happening right now.

  • The weakness of all portable devices is that they have to carry their own power with them. Over the years battery life has become a lot better by controlling device power usage and by improving battery energy density. We have gone from NiCad to Nicked Metal Hydride to Lithium. And the standby time on my phone has gone from one day to ten. But now we are about to have a jump in battery energy density with the use of nanotechnology. These new generation batteries will have the added advantage of charging very quickly indeed.
  • There is an imminent jump in display technology. Current colour LED displays are very power inefficient. They achieve their colour by using filters so they require strong backlighting to work, which eats energy. Their complexity makes them expensive to manufacture. New polymer displays look just like a colour photograph. That moves. The colour is in the surface. They use far less power, are cheap to manufacture and, very interestingly, can be curved to follow a surface.
  • Low power RISC computers were intended to do simple tasks using little power. Your car airbags use them. However ARM have made them progressively more powerful whilst continuously introducing technologies to reduce their power consumption. Now different parts of a processor run at different changing speeds (from zero) depending upon the demands placed on them. ARM processors are used in many phones and in the Nintendo DS. But they are continually evolving to be far more powerful with minimum power consumption.
  • WiFi. As this rolls out around the world and as more devices incorporate it there will be a profound effect. Your pocket device, and therefore you, will be connected to the internet. The sum of all human knowledge will be in your pocket.
  • Cheap memory. We are used to Moores law delivering this. The big change for portable devices is Flash memory. This has become so cheap that Apple, with their iPods, have been gradually switching from using miniature hard drives to using Flash. Future generation mobile devices will be able to put massive amounts of this memory into your pocket for very little cost and very little power usage. This really does make the UMD drive in the Sony PSP look like agricultural engineering.
  • Gesture interface. We have covered this in an earlier article. Already we are seeing it in the iPhone. Basically the only conventional switch you need will be an on/off switch. The interface will be by an infinitely re-configerable touch screen(s) and an accelerometer. So your device will look completely different depending on what you are using it for and you will control it by moving, stroking and touching it.

In this device war Sony have a massive advantage because they already make phones, cameras, MP3 players and a mobile games machine. All they have to do is overcome the internal politics to get these different divisions working together. (Something they have largely failed to do with their film and games divisions). Apple have a lot further to go in taking on board photography and gaming at a higher level. Nokia have a longer journey if one looks at their clumsy attempts at gaming thus far. It will be very interesting to see what Nintendo do with all this technology. As for Microsoft, who know where they are going with portable devices. Is Zune their first move towards another area of global domination?

One thing that should be very obvious here is that mobile gaming has the potential to be far bigger than home gaming. Because everyone will be carrying a powerful gaming machine around with them all the time. A gaming machine that is connected to the internet.

So what do you think these devices will look like and who do you think will come out on top?

My guess is that one side of the device will look a bit like like this.

And the other side will look a bit like this.

1 Comment

  1. Hey, I found this article really interesting since I’m doing some research on how the face of portable devices will change in the near future.

    I thought what you said about gestural interfaces was very true and a good gauge of the future. Better than that though was your thoughts on what each side would look like, spot on really.

    Over the past decade I think there was a large focus on the miniaturisation of products, and now that we are past the peak, and realise that small can get ridiculous, we are designing larger more intuitive ‘gestural’ interfaces. Do you (or anyone else) agree?

    I think this move means devices will become stay hand held sized but perhaps the miniaturisation will take place in the depth? Thinning devices seems to be a good way to maximise usability and save pocket space!

    I’m hoping to map some sort of change from the recent past through present to near future. If you do happen to look at this any further comments would be great!

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