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Considering the future of mobile phones

By Ken Banks
May 29, 2009 04:15 PM ET

IDG News Service - Few companies innovate with the intensity and frequency of those working in mobile, and today's present is a future that only a handful of people would have predicted just a few short years ago. While most of us happily soak up rampant innovation as mere consumers, a handful of people in the hallowed corridors of mobile R&D labs are already working on the next big thing -- the phones we'll be carrying around in our back pockets in 2012 and beyond.

Very occasionally we get a glimpse of this future. Nokia recently went public with their "morph concept" phone -- an idea which seems so crazy and off-the-wall it might actually be possible. Who knows, maybe it's being field tested right now, although we wouldn't know it. A morphing phone could disguise itself as anything from a watch to a handbag, making spotting one incredibly difficult.

As Alan Kay once famously said, "The best way to predict the future is to invent it." While a handful of people do precisely that, the rest of us are left to speculate. Ask people what that mobile future might look like, and we'll likely get answers that take us in one of two directions. Adults will probably be constrained by the parameters of what they see around them today, so predictions on what a mobile phone might look like in, say, ten years, would most likely center around smaller, lighter and faster. Children, on the other hand, would probably let their imaginations run riot and talk about phones that are invisible, implanted in our brains, or both. Maybe it was a children's focus group that came up with Nokia's morphing phone idea. Regardless, I'd go with the kids' instinct over an adult's any day.

Technology doesn't evolve in a vacuum, of course, and it's only when it finds its way into the hands of people that it really gets interesting. In order to understand what users need and want from their next mobile device, we need to get in the field and ask, as some mobile manufacturers do. Anthropology, with its human-centered approach to research, has become quite a trendy discipline in the mobile world, particularly when it's done in exotic emerging markets.

The irony of this approach is that, perhaps for the first time, the needs of the consumer in the developing world are beginning to drive innovation and thinking at home. With concerns about global warming, energy dependence and the environment rising up the political agenda, mobile manufacturers find themselves tackling the very same problems as they design for the developing world. These markets by their very nature demand greener, recyclable, longer-lasting, energy-efficient mobile phones. Today technology transfer works both ways, and it's increasingly heading in our direction.

Reprinted with permission from Story copyright 2014 International Data Group. All rights reserved.
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