The future of the mobile phone
Tuesday, July 17, 2007 11:30:13 PM
I'm sure most of you have a mobile phone. Or maybe you think you don't need it. Maybe you're right. Maybe mobile phones are a fad that will be replaced by something else. Or maybe not. So what will happen to the mobile phone? Get your tea or your beverage of choice and prepare for this essay. Let's dive into a little of the mobile phone history first...
Mobile phones started out as huge boxes permanently mounted in cars. Then they decreased in size. Soon you could carry them around in suitcases. They got phone number memory. They became lighter and smaller for every new model. Soon we had huge handheld mobile phones. Then they became small enough for our pockets. Now phones actually started becoming something for everyone. And soon the onslaught of features came. But there was still a long path left to walk.
Carriers added SMS. This feature was soon adopted by youths. And the phone got more means of communication. More features were added. The address books of the phones grew. Phones got calendars, calculators. Soon they were comparable to PDAs. They got games and Java. Color displays were added. WAP came. New models grew more advanced, becoming better at information management, entertainment, recording media, communication, and running software. WAP was starting to get replaced by regular internet. Some phones are more advanced than regular computers today.
Have we gone too far?
Phones are becoming more complicated and harder to use. People that haven't made an effort to follow the technological development might find themselves with a super-advanced mobile phone, barely able to use it. The phone has become harder to use.
We're standing in front of huge changes in the mobile phone market. What will happen to the phone now?
It'll replace the PC as the main computing platform! Yes. You heard correctly. We'll start using those tiny devices instead of PCs. Sounds like a nightmare? It might become one too unless some serious adoption and development of new technology is done.
Most phones use a number pad with several letters on the keys. This is the preferred interface for most phones since it makes them better for calling numbers. And the interface with several letters on each key works rather well together with predictive text where you press the key with the letter you want once. With some training, you'll be able to type fast enough for most uses. But this isn't optimal for longer text as it wears out your fingers and editing of longer texts isn't as easy as on a PC.
Some phones have an integrated keyboard. Examples include tablet style phones, phones with slider keyboards or phones with tiny buttons below the screen. An integrated keyboard is nice. But usually, the keys become too small to be comfortable for typing longer texts. So you'll rather use these as a supplement to your PC. And keys don't adapt well to to all situations. One type of keys are more suitable for typing numbers, another type is more suitable for text.
Some phones use a touch screen for the user interface. Touch screens adapt better to different situations. One of the more recent examples of phones using a touch screen is Apple's iPhone. Although not revolutionary, I must say it does innovate on the phone user interface front. Some of the innovations should be adapted in later products too. One of iPhone's drawbacks is the tiny screen with the low resolution. That combined with the inaccuracy of using your finger on a touch screen makes the kinds of applications suited for the iPhone limited.
Some phones can be connected to a TV, where there's more screen estate. An example is Nokia's N93. And now we're not that far from a PC. But there's usually no mouse cursor. And you can't connect to a TV everywhere. You're limited to places where you have access to a TV yourself, such as at home, or when doing presentations.
Projectors are an increasingly interesting technology in mobile phones. But the ideas discussed lately, are awkward on a mobile phone since the phone has to be held still. Phone projectors in their current form are not suitable for more than displaying information and multimedia. And not for interfacing with the phone.
The drawbacks of phone projectors can be solved with portable keyboards. That's a rather good solution to the user interface problems of phones. But they're not alway that easy to use and you don't bring a portable keyboard with you everywhere.
Meet the virtual projection keyboard. Suitable for text input on a tabletop. It can even act as a mouse in some scenarios. This allows a bit more mobility while still having a flexible and rather comfortable input technology. But it doesn't solve the problems with tiny screens.
Let's take a small break from phone interfaces. Let me tell you about Microsoft Surface. Microsoft surface is a table with a screen and it features a multi-touch input to allow zooming or several people working on the same screen at the same time. This can be compared to the iPhone's multi-touch input. I must say it's an interesting way to compute and could be used in more places than a table. You might be wondering why I'm discussing an interface of the size of a small car. You certainly can't bring that with you. It's because such an interface don't need to be restricted to a tabletop.
By combining some of the advantages of the technologies used today, we can make a better interface. If we combined the projector with the touch detection of the viritual projection keyboard and a simplistic multi-touch interface like in Microsoft Surface, we would have solved the problems of small, undynamic keys, small screens and unapproachable interfaces. But the phone should be able to fall back on a regular keypad and a small screen if the situation doesn't allow the use of a projected image. The projected interface might be replaced by a holographic interface in the future, eliminating more problems.
Lets look at the graphical user interface and software of phones today. The features of phones today are too confusing. And most people don't bother learning how to use them. This is because the interface in a phone is more difficult than it needs to be. The default scenario in a phone should be a simple, minimalistic interface that doesn't scare away new users. Big icons, and a maximum of nine distinct choices per menu level. Because the brain works better with a maximum of nine choices. The most important information should be visible in the phone standby mode. And the most common tasks should be accessible from the standby mode.
Phones should also adopt Opera Platform. The regular apps on a phone should be replaced by widgets. Examples of apps that would be better off as widgets are the calendar, email and messages, calculator and the contact list. These apps should sync with your data on the web too.
This concludes this essay. Phones aren't just phones more today. The innovation in the phone market will continiue. And because phones will replace the PC as the main computing platform, we need to clear the chaos, both in the user input and display, and the apps on a phone. A projector with multi-touch sensing might be better. But phones might still need traditional interfaces because a projection interface is not suited in all scenarios. The software chaos needs cleaning and more minimalism to avoid scaring away new users. Phones also need to sync with the web mainly. More standards are needed too, Opera Platform might be the better solution. What's sure, is that phones need much improvements. Share your thoughts about the subject here!
The history of mobile phones
Opera Platform SDK - Not your momma's Ajax
Some information about Opera platform by Arve Bersvendsen.
Image 1: Mobile Phones
Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 licence: Flickr user yisris
Image 2: Nokia C16 Bagphone Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 licence: Flickr user danakin
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Image 5: Celluon CL800BT
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Image 6: MS SC_CU_Hands
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Image 7: holographic-environment
Copyright © 2000: How Stuff Works
Image 8: green-meadows-appgrid
Copyright © 2002-2007: Arve Bersvendsen
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