When the iPhone launched, the world of mobile phone technology started changing immediately. Smartphones were the domain of high-powered businessmen and arch gadget lovers at the time, in part because of price, in part because their utilitarian looks and confusing interfaces didn’t appeal to many who didn’t need their advanced features.
But the iPhone managed to merge the power of smartphones with the universal, easy-to-understand interface and attractive design that most people want from a phone.
Here in 2013, the iPhone offers hundreds of thousands of apps that make just about any task user-friendly, and has some of the most advanced technology on the market. But it’s important to remember that it didn’t happen overnight.
There was no App Store until a year after the iPhone launched, and certainly no Retina display. And it’s amazing to think that the iPhone 5 has 4G mobile broadband, while the original in 2007 didn’t even have 3G.
In just five years, Apple’s iPhone has become almost unrecognisable when it comes to the technology that sits inside it, and even the outside features some incredible enhancements, despite looking a lot like the original. And now that mobile technology is the most prominent area of research and development for many companies, we are now only going to see the pace increase from now on.
But what does this mean for the future of the iPhone? Incredible leaps like the inclusion of Multi-Touch don’t come around very often, but there are other ways that the iPhone will improve over time. Small advances in areas that seem boring add up to making each new iPhone the best yet, but there are still blockbusting features that just aren’t ready yet, here in 2012.
The important thing is that these developments aren’t just science fiction: it’s nearly all technology that’s being finalised, or is being actively researched and developed. Some of the time predictions might prove to be ambitious, or technologies might arrive quicker than anticipated, but it all has potential to be real.
And though we’re only talking about the iPhone here and not the iPad – the technology used in them is very similar, so just about all of these developments will improve both devices. So join us in the Tap! Time Machine as we travel to see the iPhone as it will appear a few years down the line with technology that’s coming about right now, and we’ll also fire off into the near-distant future, looking at how the next few decades will shape and change Apple’s devices.
2014 – iPhone 6
1. New camera technology
Early in its life, the iPhone was always on the back foot when it came to the camera. Apple only really got serious about it with the iPhone 4, and now it’s one of the most talked-about features in each iteration. Though the iPhone 5 mostly made behind-the-scenes tweaks, such as better image processing, future iPhones will be able to go further.
Sony is known to have supplied Apple’s sensors in the past, and in 2013 it will release a new image sensor that packs 13 megapixels into a tiny space without compromising image quality, thanks to a new way of designing the sensor. In fact, it should bring much-improved low-light shooting, because it can capture white pixels as well as red, green and blue. This means future iPhones would also be able to offer HDR recording, for getting maximum detail from videos.
There are other advances in phone cameras, too. Nokia’s PureView 808 phone uses a huge 41-megapixel sensor to take great images. The final photos are actually only eight megapixels – what the PureView does is use around five pixels on the sensor for each pixel in the eventual image, and average the colour from those five into the final one, ensuring that it’s as accurate as possible. The downside is that image sensors of that size are just too large to include in something as thin as the iPhone.
2. The development of 4G
By the time the iPhone 6 is released, 4G will have developed further than it has now, especially in the UK. For the launch of the iPhone 5, 4G was only available from one network, and in four cities (with more to come soon). By the end of 2013, all the major UK networks should be able to offer 4G connectivity, and the coverage will be up to 70% of the UK.
At the moment, EE (also known as Everything Everywhere – the parent company of Orange and T-Mobile) is the only 4G operator, and it has launched this network on the 1800MHz band in the wireless spectrum. Other operators will have to bid for different parts of the spectrum to launch their own 4G services (except for Three, which will use EE’s).
Why is this important? Because the iPhone 5 only supports the 1800MHz band – not the others that will be used in the future. This means that if you buy an iPhone 5, it can only be used for 4G on EE and Three’s networks in the UK, even after 2013.
We expect that the next iPhone will offer a much wider range of operating bands as the technology that powers it grows. It’s likely that it will work on any 4G network in the UK without problem, much as the iPhone 4, 4S and 5 do on 3G networks.
In the US, there are two different wireless technologies, but it’s possible that Apple will even be able to offer a single phone that even works on both of those network types as well.
3. Wi-Fi 802.11ac
Though Apple drastically improved the maximum Wi-Fi connection speeds in the iPhone 5 compared to even just the 4S, the change came about just as the next generation of Wi-Fi technology is being introduced. Its already possible to buy wireless ‘AC’ (as it’s known) routers, and when the technology is integrated into phones and tablets with the kind of technology Apple uses, it’s expected to offer local network connection speeds of over 500Mbps – much faster than what’s possible now.
The fact that pretty much nobody has a home internet connection fast enough to make full use of this speed might make it seem a little pointless, but there are other purposes beyond surfing the web. It’ll mean much higher quality and more reliable video streaming over AirPlay, for example, making playing mirrored games much smoother.
Perhaps most importantly, it will allow for extremely fast wireless data syncing with iTunes – much faster than the new Lightning connector is capable of, for example. If Apple is to ever lose a physical plug connector completely, the high connection speeds of wireless AC will be important for media lovers.
Near-field communication (NFC) is a very short-range wireless technology, designed to make it simple to transfer small amounts of information very quickly and easily. This has made it ideal for use in ‘contactless’ payment systems – think along the lines of the London Underground’s Oyster Cards, where you need only tap a card on a pad to pay the correct amount.
But it’s not just about payments – because it can send and receive information in just one tap of your phone, it’s great for any ticketing system, so could be used to get into concerts, on the train or even to speed things up in the airport. And when used for payments, it can send your payment information and receive your receipt and any vouchers in the same single tap.
So far, Apple has said that Passbook in iOS does the same things as NFC, but that’s not totally accurate. Passbook stores the information, and gets it ready for you when you arrive, but it can only communicate with other equipment by showing a QR code. This means it can only send information, not receive it – but having Passbook and NFC working as one package will offer a great level of flexibility.
NFC has other practical uses as well. It can be used to access a Wi-Fi router instead of a lengthy password, for example, or to pair Bluetooth devices. Like the best new technologies, it has the potential to make life a little simpler, which of course, makes it a natural fit for the iPhone.
5. Secure payment
In the last decade, Apple has spread into all sorts of areas people wouldn’t once have expected to see it in. Movies, music, phones… and with the company frequently touting the high number of iTunes accounts with a credit card stored, how long will it be before it gets into online payments?
Think about how much simpler it would be if buying anything online was as easy as buying music or apps on your iOS device – just choose the item and type in your password. Because you’d still need a payment card behind your iTunes account, it wouldn’t so much be a competitor to the likes of Visa and Mastercard as it would to PayPal and Google Checkout.
Apple wouldn’t be able to take a cut of the transactions anywhere near as high as its 30% on apps and music, but it wouldn’t need to, since each payment would require almost no effort from them. We’re already seeing the seeds of this idea in the EasyPay system in the Apple Store app. You can go into Apple Stores and pay for physical items by scanning them into the app and entering the password for your Apple ID.
As Apple continues to expand its server reliability and security, we’re sure that in future years Apple will start expanding the number of places this service is offered.
6. Making Siri psychic
Siri continues to develop, with more searchable data being added and speech recognition being improved, but it has to be invoked to work – you have to bring Siri up and ask it what you want.
To be a truly useful virtual assistant, rather than a voice-command tool, it should anticipate your needs before you even know you need them. Google recently launched Google Now, which is a service very much along these lines. The idea is that you often want to know certain information at certain times or places, and your ‘assistant’ should be able to predict that.
First thing in the morning, you want to know the weather for the day. Just before the time you usually leave for work, you want to know about traffic problems or train delays. At 5pm on a Saturday, you probably want to know the football results. These examples are all of frequent activities, but it can also help with more unusual things you have scheduled.
Google Now doesn’t just remind you when you’ve got an appointment, for example, but will also instantly bring up full directions for getting there, too. Passbook already does something similar by pulling live information into its entries – such as which gate you need to head to at the airport for your flight – but it’s something that could be integrated into Siri and the Notification Center for really giving you instant information.
7. Storage improvements
We had been hoping that the iPhone 5 announcement would be the day that we finally saw a 128GB iPhone, but it remains beyond our grasp. More than that, the pitiful 8GB of storage in the iPhone 4 will be a real struggle to get by with if you want to download a lot of Universal apps, take lots of photos and video, and keep a good music collection on your phone (or even just two of those things).
The good news, then, is that Intel and Micron have jointly announced a new breed of flash memory chips that can fit 128GB into a single, fingernail-tip sized package. For devices where space is at a premium, including more than one flash memory chip (as would be necessary currently) might just take up too much room – especially in light of Apple’s continuing quest to make its phones as thin as possible.
And the new design isn’t just smaller; it’s much faster, too. Intel says it should offer twice the performance of the previous designs, meaning that apps will install faster and games will load quicker when they open. Intel and Micron’s new chips should already be entering mass production, and so will be available for future versions of the iPhone.
2016 – iPhone 7
1. Gesture and face recognition
Google recently introduced a ‘face unlock’ feature into Android, where rather than swiping or typing in a code to unlock your phone securely, it uses face detection to see if you’re you, and unlocks accordingly. Similarly, Google owns a patent on using face detection as a method of switching users on a device – so if you’re using an iPad, say, it might show a different set of apps and settings to if someone else was.
These technologies are somewhat imperfect at the moment, but they’re exactly the kind of seamless simplicity Apple aims for in the iPhone. It might not be unlocking that the technology ends up in, though – it’s possible that the iPhone could use your expression to determine if it’s selecting the right option in autocorrect, for example – an involuntary frown from you, and it knows you didn’t want to change ‘were’ to ‘we’re’.
Gesture control is an area that’s come on hugely since Microsoft launched its Xbox Kinect controller, but it’s still imperfect. With improved camera technology, it could be much more accurate and fine-grained, and again could be useful for the iPhone and iPad. A wave of your hand towards your phone could invoke Siri from a distance, for example, or there might be hand gestures for playback controls on a video, so you could pause it without having to to be within touching distance of your device.
Whether 3D technology ever makes it into the iPhone might depend on whether it continues to take off for movies and TV shows, and so whether Apple feels compelled to add it to the iTunes Store. If it does, you can be sure that it’ll want a flagship device to show off the 3D imagery, and the iPhone is an ideal fit.
Because it’s a device only one person uses, it can use technology similar to Nintendo’s 3DS to let you see 3D without glasses. The way the 3DS works is to add a filter layer over the screen, which angles the direction of light from the pixels ever so slightly, directing half to the left eye and half to the right.
Improvements to the 3DS’s technology in the short time since it was released mean that the 3DS XL model has a much larger ‘sweet spot’ than the original – that is, the area where you can hold your head to see the 3D effect fully is much more generous. This will become better still over time, and head-tracking could also help to keep the effect clean.
Of course, we’ve no doubt that Apple would allow you turn the 3D off, as you can on the 3DS. Adding a 3D screen wouldn’t be the end of it, either; we’d expect to see a pair of high-quality cameras on the back of the screen for recording 3D movies, and two cameras on the front, for 3D FaceTime calls.
3. A more advanced screen
Apple has never been slow when it comes to adopting advanced screen technology, bringing in Retina displays on the iPhone and iPad well before its competitors were able to offer anything similar. But resolution is only half the battle – the new iPad’s colour range and accuracy were just as important as its high resolution, while the iPhone 5′s improved colour reproduction makes almost as big a difference as its added height.
For several years, OLED (organic light-emitting diodes) screens have been touted as the next big thing. A few issues – including difficulty in producing enough to fill demand – have held them back, but they’ve made a big impact in some Android phones. The important thing about them is that they don’t require a backlight, unlike an LCD display currently used in the iPhone. This means they can be a good deal thinner, providing Apple with another way to reduce the size of the iPhone.
They also produce much deeper blacks than LCD screens, adding depth to movies. There’s also anti-reflective technology to consider, making the iPhone easier to use outdoors. One kind of technology mimics the eyeballs of moths, using hexagons that are just nanometres in size to change the way light hits materials. Plus, improved construction processes and materials might make an edge-to-edge display possible in the future, reducing the width of the iPhone and letting it shed more weight.
4. Wireless charging
Apple’s Phil Schiller was asked just after the iPhone 5 launch why it didn’t include wireless charging capabilities, something that competitor Palm was offering back in 2009. Schiller said that wireless systems aren’t that convenient, because you still need to plug a charging device into a wall, or another source of power. He suggested the humble USB cable was far more convenient.
There’s no reason these two should be mutually exclusive, though, and we suspect that Apple will introduce wireless charging as soon as it thinks the technology is viable.
Inductive wireless charging works by using an electromagnetic field to transfer power from a charging station to an induction coil in the device that needs to be powered. Basically, you pop your phone on a pad that’s plugged into a power socket, and it immediately starts charging. You can have larger pads that charge more than one device at a time, and you could have them dotted around the house.
At the moment, they suffer from poor efficiency compared to a cable – transferring around 70% of the power they consume, though this can be improved with higher-quality parts (which we’d expect from Apple).
There’s a wireless charging standard called Qi that many companies use, which has the advantage that any Qi-certified charging station and device will work with each other. We hope that Apple will go down this flexible route, but it might well create its own wireless charging solution.
5. More advanced processors
For all of its impressive upgrade in terms of design, perhaps the iPhone 5′s most ground-breaking addition is the A6 chip. Apple has been making its own branded processors for a few years, but they’ve been custom system-on-a-chip designs with fairly standard parts inside – Apple’s been buying the same parts as everyone else, but putting them together into a package in its own way.
But that all changed with the A6: for the first time, the actual CPU itself is a custom Apple design. The basis of the A6 is reportedly the same as the A5 in the 4S, but Apple was able to bring out huge performance increases by altering the exact specifications – but that’s actually quite old technology. It’s likely that Apple is already working on a tweaked version of the newer technology, which will offer even more headroom for big leaps in speed.
It’s not just the custom design that will benefit, though. Apple will be able to make the chips smaller than ever, built with a 22nm process instead of the current 32nm. This essentially means you make the same parts, but you make them smaller. You might think this would make them more expensive, but it actually works out cheaper because you use less material, and it makes them significantly more power efficient.
6. Developing iOS
As the iPhone becomes much more powerful, we’d expect iOS to grow and take advantage of what the hardware can do. We’d still expect apps to be at the core of everything you do in iOS rather than the operating system itself, and there are plenty of steps Apple can take to allow developers to create even more powerful apps.
The number of APIs available to developers will no doubt continue to grow, giving them more options for creating apps, and integrating Apple features. We hope to see more multitasking options; it may be that in a few years the iPad will have enough power to run apps concurrently in the same way that OS X does.
We’d also expect to see better ways to manage your apps – if you have lots, it’s tough to manage them. With Spotlight and Siri, it’s not too difficult to find an app if you don’t know where it is on your Home screens, but this isn’t a substitute for good organisation.
We also expect an API for Siri eventually, so that developers can allow it to access their apps, in much the way that it does for Reminders. We also hope that developers will be able to create Notification Center widgets like Apple’s Weather widget. And though Apple continues to develop what web apps can do as an alternative to App Store apps, in the future we might see a feature like Gatekeeper on OS X, where you’d have the option of installing signed apps (meaning they’ve been verified by Apple) from outside the App Store.
7. Better batteries
Lithium-ion batteries have been powering our rechargeable devices for a long time, and the technology behind them has proven to be reliable. But it’s by no means the best solution for portable power, and we don’t need to reinvent things too drastically to see improvement.
There are two main possibilities for improving battery life, one of which involves making things very small. Nanowire batteries are a variant of current lithium-ion technology, using silicon nanowires in place of the graphite used in batteries at the moment. Silicon contains up to 10 times more lithium than graphite, so the energy density is increased, allowing for batteries with less mass. They should also be able to charge faster, due to a larger surface area. There are problems with the nanowires losing charge capacity over time, but solutions are being worked on.
The other option is batteries that use oxygen to generate electricity. Metal-air batteries oxidise a metal and then reduce the oxygen to generate current – a constant supply of air is needed for them to work, but the energy density is extremely high, and they’re lightweight. It’s only now that the materials to build them are viable, the problem being the choice of metal.
Lithium-air batteries offer the best energy density but are too delicate – problems occur if the battery’s airflow gets humid – while zincair batteries offer good energy density, but struggle to retain capacity.
2020 – iPhone 9
Yes, 4G’s only just rolling out now, but then it took less than 10 years for the world to decide that 3G wasn’t enough, and that 4G was absolutely, positively necessary. However, 5G won’t be what you think. The 4G spec gives it an awful lot of headroom for growth – the initial speeds of a 50Mbps peak in practice and 100Mbps in theory will seem positively antiquated by later versions of the technology.
Eventually, 4G LTE revisions could reach download speeds of up to 1Gbps. With that sort of bandwidth available, it just isn’t necessary for 5G networks to be a big speed bump, like the moves from 2G to 3G, or 3G to 4G were. Instead 5G is intended to focus on improving the mobile internet experience in other ways.
When 4G LTE handsets launched, they pretty much gave up on the idea of power efficiency in favour of high speeds. That’s improving, and has already come on a long way in the iPhone 5, but getting the power usage as low as possible would be a focus for 5G development.
Reducing the likelihood of outages, improving speeds in areas with less coverage, increasing capacity for having high numbers of simultaneous users (so you won’t get network problems at big events, or at time like New Year’s Eve) – basically, the current 5G research is looking at making the speeds of 4G as reliable and ubiquitous as possible.
2. Liquidmetal casing
Apple has used various materials in its quest to build the perfect iPhone casing, from aluminium in the original, to plastic in the 3G/3GS, to glass in the 4/4S, and aluminium (again) in the iPhone 5. They’ve all suffered from practical flaws, even if they’ve all been improvements on each other.
The aluminium back of the iPhone 5, for example, needs to have small glass sections for the Wi-Fi and Bluetooth antennas, because the metal would otherwise block them. But Apple has exclusive rights to a technology called Liquidmetal, which could solve many of the problems with case construction.
For a start, it can be made in thin, complicated shapes easily while still providing strength; so as Apple keeps trimming millimetres off the iPhone, Liquidmetal offers a more flexible way to make the casing. It’s also highly scratch-resistant and durable, helping to keep your iPhone in pristine condition even after a few years of brushing against your keys.
And, perhaps most usefully, it can actually be used as the material for the iPhone’s antennas, meaning they can be integrated into the casing even more efficiently than they are now. And it’s even possible to finish Liquidmetal in different ways – it can be used to make shining metal casing, textured metal and more.
One of Liquidmetal’s inventors estimates that, in 2012, Apple is at least five years and several hundred million dollars away from being able to use Liquidmetal at this scale, but in the future it could offer exactly the kind of thin, strong casing needed.
3. The future of Gorilla Glass
It’s something of an open secret that Corning’s Gorilla Glass is what keeps the front of the iPhone scratch-free. This treated glass is extremely resistant to small amounts of damage (it can still be shattered, mind), and the latest version of the technology reduces the thickness of the glass by around 20%, while being stronger than ever. Corning told us that it would continue looking to make its glass thinner while maintaining strength.
The issue with going much thinner than it’s made currently (0.5mm thick) is that the glass inevitably becomes more flexible as it gets thinner, and if it becomes too much so, it could bend and damage the screen underneath it if you applied too much pressure (by, for example, sitting on it).
However, Corning still believes it can reduce the thickness of its glass down to around 0.3mm, and it will still be as tough. Corning also make substrate glass, which is the glass that the actual screens are built with, as opposed to the cover glass, which protects the screen. Corning’s latest technology aims to produce substrates that are just 0.05mm thick, which is possible because they don’t need to be tough like the cover glass – the composition can be different.
Beyond that, Corning is looking into adding anti-smudge/fingerprint technology when it produces the glass, as well as coating to self-heal scratches and reduce glare to zero with impacting on screen quality.
4. A more touching experience
Just before the launch of the iPad 3, there were rumours going around that Apple would include technology from a company called Senseg in its touchscreens that allowed for haptic feedback. Haptic feedback is essentially touch feedback, and it takes many forms.
Some smartphones vibrate every time you hit a button or key on the touchscreen, in an attempt to replicate what you feel when you press a physical button. Senseg’s technology is considerably more advanced, though. It uses electrical fields to actually recreate physical feeling on the touchscreen. So, if you were to run your finger along a row of keys on a keyboard, each one would actually feel as if it were physically there to your finger, even though the flat glass isn’t changing at all.
It can be used to replicate different textures, and to let you ‘feel’ objects on screen as you move them – one of Senseg’s demos involved pushing a ball on-screen.
How would this be used in iOS? While we doubt Apple would go to the trouble of offering you to feel the ‘leather’ in the Calendar app, you would be able to feel the switches in Settings move as you turn them off, feel the keyboard keys as you type, and it could provide a way for Braille readers to use the iPhone and iPad without any accessories needed. Developers might find it a lot of work to integrate – we’re not sure how many of them will want to effectively design a physical product as well as a virtual one.
5. Your iPhone becomes your computer
In the future, the idea of buying a Windows PC or a Mac might become a totally archaic thought. Though the processing power of the iPhone in a decade’s time might well surpass the power of what’s in the latest laptops now, we’re actually not suggesting that your iPhone will simply plug into a screen to form the guts of a computer (though this is entirely possible).
We’re talking about virtualisation through the cloud. The technology already exists in 2012, being put to use in OnLive’s cloud gaming service and OnLive Desktop offering. OnLive Desktop basically switches your home Windows PC for one that’s in the cloud – running on a server owned by someone else. You move a mouse and type on a keyboard, those commands are sent to the server over the internet, and the video stream of the actions is sent back to your screen.
With faster internet speeds available, you’d barely be able to notice any difference to using a PC under your desk. Apple has already taken the unexpected move of making OS X available for home virtualisation, so perhaps iCloud will house the operating system in the future. In fact, iCloud might well become the operating system – you could simply run virtualised versions of applications, with no need for an OS to contain them. And the iPhone would be more than powerful enough to power this, and stream the video to a larger screen over AirPlay.
6. Siri is perfected
By this time, Siri will have had years to learn people’s speech patterns, dialects and accents. It will be able to manage just about any online task for people all over the world. It will also be able to help reach all parts of your phone, and apps will be tied into it, allowing what it can do to be expanded almost infinitely.
The important thing is that it will never make mistakes, and could even start to advise you on tone. If you dictate and email or text with an angry tone, it might suggest calming down and recomposing. If you sound happy, it could append a smiley face. Apple might even move the speech recognition from the cloud to your phone.
This might seem backwards compared to the way everything else is going, but it has distinct advantages, and it’s only in the future that the iPhone would have the computing power to correctly analyse speech. It means that if your internet connection goes down, you won’t lose Siri’s ability to perform actions on your iPhone (even if it can’t do anything in the cloud), and it would make responses as fast as possible.
7. Local storage becomes obsolete
Though there will no doubt be lots of advances in storage capacity over time, it’s likely to become less and less necessary. Ubiquitous fast internet speeds will make music streaming an equivalent to storing it on your device, except that you’ll have access to a library larger than you could ever hope to store yourself.
Movies and TV shows won’t need to be downloaded either – you’ll be able to get instant 3D 4K (the heir apparent to 1080p HD) streams anywhere. On-demand content is likely to almost completely replace watching channels live, except in the case of special events. Physical media will just seem like a waste of space.
Similarly, any documents you work on will just be saved to the cloud. This is already happening, but it will simply become the norm for everything in the future. Photos will be uploaded as they’re taken, stored online for you to review from any device.
Security shouldn’t be a concern in the cloud – Siri could allow to even voice-authenticate access in a pinch – and backing up wouldn’t be a problem, either. Even now, Dropbox saves previous versions of your documents, so they can’t be lost or accidentally overwritten. We’d expect iCloud to offer the same options, just like Apple’s OS X does on the Mac.
2050 – iPhone 24
1. Rollable displays
The flat, solid displays that we’re used to at the moment have come on hugely in the last few years, but they put a limit on the portability of devices – their size inevitably dictates the size of the device. Flexible, rollable displays give us more options in this area. It’s possible, for example, to have an iPhone where the whole screen can disappear into another area, perhaps one the size of the bottom area of the current iPhone, where the Home button sits.
It would make it incredibly small to carry around, and when you want to use it, you just pop out the screen. There’s a material in development called nanocrystalline cellulose, which is transparent, incredibly strong for its weight, flexible and conducts electricity.
This means that not only can it survive the rigours of being rolled in and out all day, but it can also power a display of OLED pixels on its surface. We’ve already seen that OLEDs require no backlight, and so can be a part of displays that are only a fraction of a millimetre thick. In addition, nanocrystalline cellulose will also be very cheap to make, because it’s derived from wood pulp.
2. See-through screen
With phones and other devices likely to only continue flooding us with information, context is vitally important. There’s no better context than being able to see information applied directly to what it’s describing, which is why augmented reality is incredibly useful. There are already some AR apps around in the App Store, such as map apps that point you in the direction of restaurants when you hold your phone up to point the camera around at eye height.
But it can be much more than that. Imagine a phone with a clear screen, that could overlay information about whatever’s behind it. Hold it over a gadget and it would bring up specifications and purchase options. Hold it in front of a person and it overlays social network updates. It’s much more seamless than what’s available now, and interactive – there’s no waiting for the camera to focus on the one thing that app’s designed to analyse – you just hold the phone up and it fills with information, identifying what’s behind it.
Our old friends OLED and nanocrystalline cellulose crop up again, here. Samsung has already shown off a transparent display based on OLED technology, so the technology is eminently achievable, but having a durable, flexible material to use will be hugely important. Like we said, nanocrystalline cellulose is actually transparent, on top of its many other virtues, so it ideal for this sort of application.
3. It’s all in the eyes
Google’s Glasses device is essentially a pair of glasses that records everything that happens, and displays information on the lenses, in front of your eyes. At the moment, they’re inelegant headsets with a bulky battery, but some of the technology we’ve seen here could make them much more appealing – essentially, they could work in a pair of contact lenses instead of glasses.
With a low-enough energy draw, they could be powered by the heat of your eye, using graphene technology. They could record on tiny camera optics, and transmit what they see wirelessly to your iPhone, using carbon nanotube antennae that are microscopic in size. OLED pixels on them could display augmented reality information – the US military is already working on technology that lets you focus on things that are close up and far away at the same time, so the information would still be clear, even as you’re looking at something in the distance.
The hub for all this would be your phone, receiving imagery from the contacts, and sending information to them. The iPhone itself can also use your eyes in more innovative ways, tracking where you’re looking to adjust options, or even letting you control it with just your eyes. You could type, for example, simply by looking at the letters you want on the keyboard.
4. Eternal power
Better charging solutions are all very well, but in the future, wouldn’t it be better if you never had to make a point of charging your iPhone at all? Advances in battery technology could allow for an iPhone that essentially powers itself. A battery that uses graphene (the same material that carbon nanotubes are made from) has been proposed and experimented with that uses thermal energy to generate electricity – that is, it’s powered by heat.
So by placing the battery next to the warm computer components it’s powering, it can get some energy back. Now, we’re not suggesting that the laws of physics will have changed in a few decades and this will generate perpetual energy – the battery will also need energy from elsewhere to stay topped up. But that could be just about anything: your body heat when it’s in your pocket; heat from your hand when you hold it; solar thermal heat.
All these things would just provide power passively, without you ever needing to think about intentionally charging it, and the power consumption of the parts in the future will be so small compared to today that it might be able to always run without any intentional power input.
5. Siri becomes truly intelligent
Though Siri is cleverly designed to be occasionally witty and appear smart in its knowledge, it’s still really quite constrained. Push it past its pre-loaded instruction sets and you’re likely to receive plaintive apology and an offer of a web search. And though Siri can ‘learn’ at the moment, it’s just learning certain new connections about you, all still within the constraints of what it can do.
As much more processing power becomes available to Apple, we could see Siri advance into some much smarter – something with true intelligence. IBM is already looking at ways to bring its Watson intelligent supercomputer (which was able to beat human contestants at the gameshow Jeopardy) to smartphones, but we’re talking about creations even beyond that.
Future versions of these AIs could learn the things you like in a passive and genuinely constructive way, being able to recommend some things and discard others based on what it knows about you. If you ask it something it doesn’t know, it could perform research online in just a matter of moments, reading and collating information and giving you what you need to know.
We’re not suggesting it needs to go as far as having distinct personality and pulling us into a Blade Runner situation, but there’s a lot of scope for Siri to learn and know things more naturally, instead of within our confines.
6. The Tricorder
While the iPad made us think of the tablet computers they use in later series of Star Trek, it might well be that future versions of the iPhone make us think of the Tricorder, the general-purpose scanning and analysis device carried by the crew of the Enterprise.
NASA has been looking into devices that can easily monitor the health of astronauts in space, and diagnose any problems that arise, while the X Prize Foundation is offering $10 million if a team can create a device that can diagnose illnesses. There are various technologies that will help to bring these forwards, such as graphene-based DNA analysers.
It’s not just medical applications, though. By combining an array of sensors, from pressure sensors to ultrasonic distance detectors to spectroscopy, the iPhone could receive a huge amount of information about the world. It could be its own on-board weather station, warning you of impending rain; it could identify if there are dangerous gases nearby; it could even help you find flaws with buildings. Want to know if certain water is safe to drink? Just point your iPhone at it.
Electronics will become so small that it should be possible to fit in dozens of sensors, ensuring that you’ll know as much as possible about the world around you.
7. More advance build materials
When looking for a way to make devices as thin and light as possible, manufacturers will have to go beyond the traditional materials we’re using now. Even the likes of Liquidmetal might not offer the strength and flexibility necessary. Nanostructures might become necessary for building materials strong enough and light enough for future devices.
The most prevalent of these is carbon nanotubes, which are formed taking a sheet of carbon that’s one atom thick, known as graphene, and forming it into a tube. Carbon nanotubes have proven to be something of a wonder material – they’re among the strongest and stiffest materials ever discovered, and could be even harder than diamonds.
There are all sorts of proposed uses for them, including stopping bullets (better than kevlar would), as a way to build an elevator into space (really), and for the construction of future iPhones? Considering how versatile they are, it might come as no surprise if we tell you that carbon nanotubes even make a good antenna, but at a tiny fraction of the weight of a regular antenna (one ten-thousandth the weight of a copper one, for example).
So, like the materials used in the iPhone today, carbon nanotubes could combine being a case and antenna for a future iPhone, while being almost impossibly light and small.
In 2007, Apple introduced the iPhone as the first successful Multi-Touch device. The iPad followed three years later, and the two have come to represent as big a change in computing as the graphical user interface was 30 years beforehand. In both cases, the way of interacting was criticised by those used to the old method.
Productivity is the word most often trotted out, with claims that a graphical interface didn’t give you the power of the command line abounding in 1984, and claims that a touchscreen doesn’t give you the precision of a mouse pointer. The problem with these claims is that they so often confuse familiarity with necessity, and a lack of imagination with advancement.
The graphical interface has provided the kinds of productivity tools that couldn’t have been dreamed of in a command line world, and a future dominated by touch gives us another opportunity to rethink how we create software, and what the best way to create things or just have fun and connect with the world is. If this sounds far-fetched to you, just look at households with both children and iPads.
Kids that are far too young to comprehend the metaphor of mouse-based interfaces – controlling a pointer that represents your hand – can instantly pick up the far more literal interaction of the iPad, where your hand is your hand. Things move how they expect to move when they drag them. Buttons react like real buttons.
It’s only adults who find touch controls to be inadequate compared to the mouse and keyboard, in many cases because they can’t yet get software for iOS that matches the desktop equivalent. It’s a totally legitimate complaint, but it’s one that’s based on immediacy – you can’t replace your PC with an iPad for all tasks now.
But the software will improve. By the time kids have developed the finger dexterity and comprehension necessary to use a mouse, why would they want to? Games are available on the iPad. The iPad is a more immediate research tool than a computer – it’s usually to hand wherever you want to find something out, rather than tucked away in another room.
Basic word processing will have better controls in iOS in the future than it does now. The likes of Brushes offer a more natural canvas for doodling than Microsoft Paint ever did, while being easier to use. Children will start using computers regularly without needing to use a mouse, so when they do need to use more complex software, the interface will change with them.
In most cases, the tools are already on iOS, they’re just not as comprehensive as their more mature desktop counterparts at the moment. But touchscreens, voice interaction and gesture controls offer a wide scope to make our software work for us, in the ways humans like to work, instead of us having to conform to computer guidelines.
As that changes, and natural interfaces develop into something as comprehensive as mouse-based interfaces, there’ll still be no compelling reason to start using a mouse (except for a few fringe cases, perhaps). Advanced image editing, computer programming, design, spreadsheet and database management… these are all possible on the iPad now, and we are already witnessing them get better and more comprehensive over time.
And it’s not just the mouse. Children used to the iPhone tend to try to swipe through photos on a digital camera, or expect television to be an interactive choice, instead of a linear experience. The death of the old ways of interacting won’t come from some overnight decision that new interfaces are now good enough for the world to use for everything, but from obsolescence over time.
The disconnection between our hands and the action we’re performing will seem needless and archaic to the generation about to start using computers. Right now, the iPad might be something you use in addition to a desktop PC, but we might be the last generation for whom that’s true. Our children might never use a mouse at all.
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