Meet Tomorrow's Mobile Phones

Old Ma Bell would hardly recognize these futuristic upstarts. By Brian Nadel

This version of this story appeared in the print edition of Computerworld. To read an extended version with accompanying photos of the mobile devices, click here.

The cookie-cutter approach to designing mobile phones could disappear in the next few years as designers get more daring and more personal.

"All phones today do the basics well," says Shiv Bakhshi, an analyst at research firm IDC. "But that won't be enough in the future."

We asked a dozen designers and industry leaders to predict how mobile phones will change and to guess when the technology behind the new concepts will be available.

Here are some concept phones, which, like concept cars, are meant to demonstrate new ideas, not serve as prototypes of actual soon-to-be-released devices.

Nokia Corp.'s Morph is made of flexible materials that mimic the suppleness of spider's silk. It is designed to, well, morph between what looks like a traditional mobile phone and a bracelet. "Using nanotechnology, the phone can change its personality to become whatever is most suitable for the task at hand," says Tapani Ryhanen, head of strategic research at the Nokia Research Center in Ruoholahti, Finland.

The phone's electronics are expected to be so small that they'll be invisible to the naked eye. This will let designers make the phone transparent, Ryhanen says.

The Morph could also help you live more healthfully, says Nokia. An array of microscopic sensors could measure environmental hazards, such as carbon dioxide levels, or sense a diabetic's blood-sugar balance.

  • Technology timeline: Seven to 15 years

Created by Massimo Marrazzo of Turin, Italy-based design firm Biodomotica, the Handphone has a microphone shaped like a ring that slips on the end of your pinky. The speaker is on another ring that slips on your thumb, and a circular phone controller and radio sit on the back of your hand, held on by elastic string.

Anyone who has ever motioned toward his mouth and ear with outstretched pinky and thumb to imitate making a call will know how to use Handphone. "The gesture is natural for people," says Marrazzo.

By definition, Handphone is not hands-free, but dialing, picking up and hanging up can be done with voice-activated controls.

  • Technology timeline: Available now

The P-Per is a thin device that looks like two iPhones glued together. "It has a [touch] screen on each of its two sides," says Karole Ye of independent design firm Chocolate Agency, in Shenzhen, China. "Mobile phone and messaging are on one, and a camera on the other."

  • Technology timeline: Three or four years

Istanbul, Turkey-based designer Emir Rifat Isik's Packet phone is a foldable device that's about a centimeter thick and just 5 centimeters (about 2 inches) square when it's folded up.

"The idea was to put all the possible functions in the smallest area and make them easy to use," says Isik.

If you fold open the top and bottom squares, the Packet looks like a traditional flip phone with a speaker and screen at the top, a microphone at the bottom and a dial pad in the middle.

If you want to type an e-mail or surf the Web, you fold open the two sides to create a cross-shaped smart phone. There's a split keyboard at the sides, a pointer at the center and a screen at the top. "All interaction will be by touching the screens," says Isik.

  • Technology timeline: A couple of years

James Scott, a researcher at Microsoft Research Cambridge in England, is developing a phone with force sensors embedded at corners so that hand actions like stretching, squeezing and bending can be used as commands. For instance, you could turn the phone on and off by squeezing or pulling it, or advance a Web page by twisting the device.

One of the advantages of this technology is that it saves space because there's no need for push buttons, Scott says. That leaves more room for the screen.

Technology timeline: A decade, if the research pans out

How would you like a phone that doesn't run out of power -- or at least can run much longer than current phones without being recharged?

Ricardo Baiao of Lisbon, Portugal, who works for Cincinnati-based DesignerID, is taking an interesting approach to developing such a device. His Atlas Kinetic concept phone will draw power from the motions the user makes while walking, running or even sitting down.

Like the self-winding watches of the 1960s, it has built-in weights, rotors and springs that generate power whenever it's shaken or moved. That power runs a generator that charges the battery.

A number of other creative approaches to powering phones are also emerging. For instance, Apple recently received a patent for a unique solar-powered phone. The device's screen would generate power with invisible photovoltaic layers that would gather the sun's light -- or a room's artificial lighting.

  • Technology timeline: Unknown

The designs of the phones of tomorrow are limited only by the imaginations of today's developers, who are constantly looking for new and innovative ways to put together the necessary software and hardware. "Big improvements in phone technology are coming," IDC's Bakhshi says. "What you can imagine today will be possible on a cell phone tomorrow."

Nadel is a freelance writer based near New York and is the former editor in chief of Mobile Computing & Communications magazine.

Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

7 inconvenient truths about the hybrid work trend
Shop Tech Products at Amazon