Is the iPhone evolving faster than Moore's Law?

So what exactly is so important about mobile computing and the evolution of the smartphone? Why is the war becoming so intense, innovation so frenetic, and the hype so loud? These are just mobile phones you can play games on, portable address books for texting and time-wasting, aren't they?

Not at all.

This is a battle for the future of computing. And with computers central to the experience of most people across most industries worldwide, you could argue that the importance of this battle could affect the future of the planet itself.

I realise this sounds like hyperbole. But take a moment's reflection and just think of the evolution of the mobile phone.

The history goes back longer, but the first handheld cellular phone comes out of Motorola way back in 1973. (Thanks to Doctor Cooper).

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We don't really see these things hit the streets until the early '80's, when they were pretty much the domain of the very rich. The late 90's sees the arrival of GSM phones, this marks the moment when the mobile market exploded.

Look at the growth curve. We had 100 million cellphone subscribers worldwide in 1996. Ten years later we had 2.5 billion. This hit 4.6 billion users this year. 60% of the world's citizens have access to mobile phones, according to a recently released UN report.

These things have already changed the world. Beyond the more industrialized nations, mobiles have created communication infrastructures that have switched on whole countries.

In some places there is comparatively little in the way of fixed line infrastructure -- but communications are mobile. This has helped economies grow, has helped democratize access to information and more.

That's just the mobile biz. Computing and the Internet has had a similar effect, and similar explosive growth. Now we're looking at the moment when these two forces do what they have always been expected to do, they are coming together.

The smartphone is the convergence of mobile phones and computers. This is why smartphones will soon become the dominant computing platform and supplant the PC which has reigned since Apple ignited the PC revolution in the late '70's.

Consider the future evolution and creation of wider, stronger data networks and the development of ever more devices and services.

Ponder the huge future potential of cloud-based services accessed by mobile devices connected to these data networks, and perhaps you'll see why I think we're looking at a wave of change the impact of which will dwarf the huge technology-driven changes we've already experienced in our lifetimes.

Chuck in GPS positioning, user data tracking, preference detection and analysis, RFID-based communications, phone-based payment systems, and the rest and you're looking at a handheld heart of potential that goes way, way beyond what we've even imagined yet.

This will be a lot more than mobile ticket systems and Netflix video watching. Those things are simply the consumer-focused features which attract us to join in.

Think big, people. These devices aren't simply going to keep being your multimedia pleasure centers. These things aren't going to be content running spirit level apps, the 'real' Web (and let's stop pretending Flash is coming along with us on that ride, please), phone calls, contacts and calendars. These aren't just email machines, text message terriers or instant messaging massagers.

These smartphones are our own personal handfuls of change. A pretty pill. A hub. The center of our future digital lives in an age in which life is itself becoming digital.

An age in which we're seeing the boundaries between the visible and invisible, the digital and the environmentally-determined, the real and the unreal -- these boundaries are melding. As they do we're evolving a whole new planet, our digital imaginations are increasing the psychic size of the place we're in.

What will unlock it all?

Our smartphones. These things are powerful. As Intel's Matt Ployhar (he loves his iPhone) writes,

"When you look under the hood at the capabilities of something like an iPhone 4 it is literally about twice as powerful as the first desktop PC I purchased which was a Micron P266 with an 8mb video card!"

And this industry is evolving fast: at "Moore's Law pace of faster", Ployhar points out. Where is this going?

Here's a notion. In future your iPhone (or shortly afterwards, your Android phone and potentially one day your BlackBerry, Nokia or Windows-powered device) will be your digital heartbeat.

It will know when you are holding it by your heartbeat, password, finger print and retina scan. Hand it to another approved user and it will be able to switch to another user ID (OS X's user identities means so much more than a Guest account).

When your phone switches it will offer a completely different set of apps and features customised and chosen by that other user. If someone who isn't approved picks up the phone it will revert to a different, neutral mode, just in case.

But it doesn't stop there. Your iPhone will speak to the devices around it. March across to a computer and the two devices will speak to each other and you'll find you have more or less immediate access to all the data and applications you usually use on your own machines.

Your smartphone will be central to this. You'll have a pico projector -- want to watch TV? Use your phone. Listen to music? Use those Bluetooth speakers over there. Want to watch a movie? Phone. Make a movie? Your phone. Play a game? No problem.

One day you'll see screens disappear. Your phone will become so discreet that user interfaces will only appear when you speak a command. You'll have discreet user interfaces projected onto surfaces near you which you then manage using familiar touch-based commands.

The virtual world will augment your reality. You may be walking down a street looking for a place or a service and you'll see some form of dialogue appear, visual, audible, whatever you choose.

Power problems? Built-in solar panels will keep your device active. Want to read something? Ask the intelligent assistant to find you something -- if it is any good it will produce something your didn't know you wanted with a flourish before you even finish asking it to find you something.

I'm going to stop the future-gazing now, but only to remark that all these things are already possible -- today.

These evolutions aren't predictions for a future that's far away, the technologies are already there, it really is only a question of pulling all the pieces together.

And these are just some of the motivations my limited intelligence can put together to underline the importance of the battle we are seeing taking place in our lifetimes for dominance of the smartphone industry

And with smartphones set to become so utterly central to the human experience, we should already be looking to this battle with both excitement and caution.

Apple, Google and others need to make a commitment to put individual privacy and security at the very core of their efforts to dominate the next human evolution.

We'll see some more incremental movement in this direction next week, when Apple shows us a few hints at its work on cloud-based application services and media delivery systems (anyone notice MobileMe was down for a few hours last night).

And just how much computer can you put on a single processor, anyway?

Copyright © 2010 IDG Communications, Inc.

Bing’s AI chatbot came to work for me. I had to fire it.
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