Most of us take it for granted that we can check email with our mobile phones. But not long ago, this was a truly disruptive technology that changed how we did business and stayed in touch when we were away from home and the office.
Which begs the question: what new mobile technologies will emerge in the next few years that will change our lives?
That question was posed to a group of industry analysts, futurists and executives for key vendors, a group grounded in reality, not fantasy. Yet, they still suggested 13 technologies that will provide dramatically better mobile access, better devices and better applications. Some of these life-changing technologies are just around the corner while others years away.
These aren't isolated technologies. Rather, for the most part, they build on each other so that one won't be possible until another is widely available. But they all, in their own way, will significantly improve how individuals and business users are mobile.
Let's see what the future holds.
Advanced applications and devices require fast, easily affordable access, but today's 3G cellular data service remains expensive and slow. That's about to change, however, and the pace of change will remain rapid into the foreseeable future.
Disruption 1: Mobile WiMax
Mobile WiMax is already nearing release in the US and many believe it will provide the answer for mobile broadband in the UK in years to come. Experts say it has the potential to revolutionise the way we connect to the web while on the move.
"If you're looking to 2009 or 2010, WiMax will be somewhat revolutionary in terms of wireless broadband," said Brian Clark, a partner with M/C Venture Partners in Boston. "It starts to offer a DSL-level of [wireless] service."
Sprint Nextel claims typical (as opposed to peak) speeds on the network its planning to launch in the US next year will be in the 2Mbps to 4Mbps range. And while Sprint hasn't yet provided pricing details, it has said its WiMax offering will be priced similarly to DSL and cable access, which is significantly cheaper than 3G. Even more radically, at least for a company best known as a mobile operator, Sprint won't demand long-term contracts but, rather, will use a subscription model.
Verizon Wireless said it will deploy a competing technology called LTE (long-term evolution), which will have similar speeds to Sprint's Xohm network. However, most observers believe that LTE and similar technologies deployed by other carriers won't start to be available until at least 2011. By that time, proponents claim second-generation mobile WiMax will offer speeds potentially as high as 1Gbps.
Why it's important: Most of the other disruptive technologies discussed here require fast, affordable wireless access.
What could hold it back: Some of Sprint's shareholders want to throttle back its WiMax plans and put more energy into the company's faltering cellular efforts, a sentiment that led to the firing of Sprint CEO Gary Forsee. If that trend accelerates, mobile WiMax may be delayed or may not be given the resources to succeed.
Disruption 2: Multi-hop relay networks
Some researchers and futurists believe that multi-hop relay networks will eventually supplant technologies such as WiMax and LTE. With these networks, wireless signals will route themselves through a series of access points. Like the internet itself, the route that the data takes is variable, depending on conditions.
"The network will find the best route and the best transmission mode," said Wen Tong, director of Nortel Networks' wireless technology laboratory. "I see initial deployment in three years."
A variant of the multi-hop relay network called ad hoc networks could come even later. With this technology, data would be relayed through, among other things, devices themselves. In other words, your phone will also be a movable access point.
"The defining quality of the ad hoc network is that it has no infrastructure," said Anthony Ephremides, a professor of electrical and computer engineering at the University of Maryland. "I'd guess it'll be [ready] in a five-to-10-year timeframe."
Why it's important: These networks will extend network access to where none exists without building a lot of infrastructure. Because there is little infrastructure, the networks can withstand catastrophe. That is why, Ephremides said, the military is sponsoring a lot of research into ad hoc networks.
What could hold it back: This technology is still very much in the research phase, particularly ad hoc networks. A variety of issues, not the least of which is security, have yet to be resolved.
Disruptions 3 & 4: Femtocells and fixed-mobile convergence
Both these technologies enable you to have one phone and one phone number with which you can communicate from virtually anywhere.
A femtocell looks a bit like a Wi-Fi router but performs the same function in the home or office as cellular base stations that sit in brick buildings at the base of mobile towers. That is, they communicate directly with your mobile phone and carry the signal to the larger network via a broadband line such as DSL or cable.
"Carriers will offer femtocells the way cable operators offer cable modems," said Paul Callahan, vice president of business development at femtocell vendor Airvana. "They'll give you five bars in your home."
That means you'll be able to ditch your landline and use your mobile phone everywhere. Sprint is offering femtocells, on a trial basis, to customers in Denver and Indianapolis and is charging $15 (£7.50) a month for individuals or $30 (£15) for a family. Subscribers can then make as many local and national calls as they want.
In the UK, BT offers a fixed-mobile convergence service called BT Fusion which requires a mobile phone that supports both Wi-Fi and regular mobile access. Built into the phone is software that enables you, for example, to walk into your home or office while talking on the mobile network and have the call seamlessly switch to voice-over-IP on the Wi-Fi network. You also need a compliant Wi-Fi router. As with femtocells, fixed-mobile convergence allows you to lose your landline.
Why it's important: Having a single phone and a single phone number will be a great convenience and money saver. Also, some of the disruptive applications discussed later depend on the ability to track your availability no matter where you are. Using only a mobile phone makes this more possible.
What could hold it back: To some extent, these technologies will duke it out against each other. That will take time to sort out.
With faster, more ubiquitous access, devices can start to radically change.
"Imagine a Bluetooth headset in your ear but that's the phone," said Dan Burrus, CEO of Burrus Research and author of the book Technotrends. "And it will continue to get smaller from there until it's implanted in your ear. You ask for whatever you need [with your voice] and it will tell you the answers."
However, smaller, more powerful phones themselves will be the end result of several enabling disruptions, Burrus and the other experts agree. These disruptions may seem relatively minor but, added together, they will result in the phones and applications of tomorrow.
Disruption 5: Miniscule, less power-hungry chips
Chip vendors have been talking about smaller, more powerful and less power-hungry chips for a long time. Now, development of such chips is likely to accelerate.
"Companies like Intel have focused on putting more transistors on a chip and making their products more powerful," said Anthony Townsend, research director at Institute for the Future. "It takes a while to turn a ship like that around." The rapid growth of all things mobile is accelerating that trend, Townsend said.
Besides being smaller and significantly more power efficient, tomorrow's mobile chip sets will also combine multiple radios, such as Wi-Fi, 3G and WiMax, on a single chip, according to the experts.
Why it's important: Smaller, more powerful chips mean smaller, more powerful mobile devices and applications. Combined with faster, ubiquitous wireless broadband, that means devices can be sewn into clothing, placed unobtrusively into ears or even implanted in your teeth.
What could hold it back: Do people really want devices that small?
Disruption 6: Wireless USB and ultrawideband
These short-range, wireless cable replacement technologies are starting to be available. Admittedly, they lack the gee-whiz factor, but they eventually will make life much easier for mobile users.
Why it's important: At the very least, it will be nice to synchronise data between devices and desktops wirelessly. Short-range wireless cord replacements will also be useful for entertainment applications such as streaming video throughout the home. But the real benefit will be using these technologies with tiny mobile devices, according to Derek Kerton, principal of the Kerton, a telecommunications consulting firm.
"If we get miniscule phones, they could use wireless USB or UWB to connect to a full-sized keyboard," Kerton said. "Or we could have tiny devices that [use these technologies to] project usable keyboards on desks or images on walls."
What could hold it back: Not much. These technologies are already well established and should become widely used in the next couple of years.
Disruption 7: Nearly flawless speech recognition
Another mobile input application on the horizon is better speech recognition, which will be enabled by more powerful mobile chips.
"Speech recognition got bogged down because it was only 98 percent or 99 percent accurate," Burrus said. "Even at that accuracy, many of us found it was faster to type. A lot of the problem had to do with processing power - speech recognition needs a lot of horsepower."
More powerful mobile processors will solve that problem, Burrus predicted. And speech playback will become more natural-sounding, he added. In other words, everything you do with your keyboard at your desk, you'll be able to do with speech while you're mobile.
Why it's important: If you have a teensy mobile device that is, say, tucked in your ear, better speech recognition and playback means you don't need a keyboard or display. You'll be able to perform complex functions such as web searches or buying things using your voice.
What could hold it back: Users could be reticent about letting others in public places hear their business. They may prefer to combine better speech recognition with other methods of input.
Disruption 8: Foldable displays and e-paper
Vendors such as Philips and Fujitsu have been publicly showing foldable and e-paper displays for mobile devices. Both will enable tiny devices to display data clearly on easily stowed screens.
E-paper uses a mylar-like screen, said Paul Moore, senior director of mobile product marketing at Fujitsu.
"You can maintain the image with no power at all," he said. "So I take a small tube [of e-paper] out of my pocket, unfold it and there's the New York Times. I can use the same e-paper for tomorrow's paper."
E-paper will have a dramatic effect on laptops, Moore predicted. That's because, when it is improved enough that it can support constantly changing images and not just static ones, it can replace laptop LCDs. That will dramatically cut both laptop weight and power consumption, Moore said.
In addition, Japan's NTT DoCoMo is experimenting with e-paper to replace keys and icons on phones. With e-paper, those keys and icons can change as you change applications from, say, being in voice mode to being in media playback mode.
Why it's important: Foldable screens and e-paper mean we can easily have big displays with our miniscule mobile devices.
What could hold it back: The technology still must be perfected. Also unknown is how much such displays will cost.
Disruption 9: Centralised storage
Fast, ubiquitous wireless access will enable centralised storage on remote servers, which will have a series of important ripple effects, according to Burrus.
"You don't need a lot of bulk [on a device] if you offload storage and other functions to a [centralised] server," Burrus said.
Kerton agrees. "How much sense does it make to store a specific jazz album on your device and everybody else is storing it on their device, too?" Kerton asked. "We're doing massive edge storage and that doesn't make sense."
Why it's important: After faster, more powerful but smaller mobile chips, ubiquitous wireless connections and better input-output methods, centralised storage is the final step toward completely untethering mobile devices and those of us who use them.
What could hold it back: So far, internet-based storage has not proved popular. It's hard to break old habits of local storage.
So what do we do with these powerful, tiny, highly connected devices with satisfying input and output? The answer, of course, is new, innovative applications.
We can't hope to cover all the potentially disruptive applications of the future, but we can describe why a few will change your life. We'd love to hear your choices in the comments section of this story.
Disruption 10: Unified communications
Huge technology players such as Microsoft and Cisco are pushing for the ability to tie together all forms of communications, including landlines and the various types of wireless. It's a compelling vision that is a stew comprised of many ingredients.
One futuristic ingredient in unified communications is sometimes called 'superpresence', which is like a supercharged version of the instant messaging feature that lets you know if a buddy is online. In this case, superpresence could also provide information such as the best method at any given moment to communicate with a person or an estimate of when that they'll arrive at a destination. Users will create rules that say, for example, they can be interrupted by a spouse and boss, but not by others.
Another part of this stew includes technologies already mentioned, such as fixed-mobile convergence and femtocells, because they make it easier to locate and communicate with people Two more ingredients are the ability to transparently route communications to an individual via disparate networks and the ability to share applications in real time via those disparate networks.
Why it's important: One word describes why this is important: productivity. For instance, far-flung project teams will be much more efficient interacting with each other and exchanging ideas and other mission-critical information.
What could hold it back: At some point, employees may tire of being available 24/7, and unified communications will make it even harder than is currently the case to escape from work.
Disruption 11: Mobile commerce
In Japan, mobile phone users are increasingly using built-in near-field communications technology to swipe their phones near special point-of-sale terminals to buy things.
That's coming to the West, too, and credit card companies and mobile phone vendors are running trials. Proponents claim this technology has other functions. For instance, you'll swipe your phone near a concert poster to download more information about the performer and to buy tickets. Or swipe your phone near an in-store kiosk to get digital cents-off coupons.
Why it's important: Utter simplicity. No more fumbling around for your credit card or struggling to keep track of your purchases. And you can easily share the information with your desktop financial manager.
What could hold it back: Cellular operators, phone vendors and credit card companies are keen to get this off the ground. However, it would require merchants to buy new point-of-sale terminals, which could be a hard sell.
Disruption 12: Mobile security
Of course, security is needed for mobile commerce and many other next-generation applications. Burrus said not only will future phones be secure, but they'll be used in other contexts to ensure security.
"We'll have new levels of biometrics," he noted. "If your phone is in your ear, everybody's inner ear canal is different and the phone can tell. That's one form of biometrics. Similarly, everybody's voice is different. Or maybe the phone will discern blood vessel patterns in my ear." Then, there's fingerprint scanning, already common with laptops. Best of all, this security could be performed automatically, making secure transactions easier and faster.
Why it's important: Besides protecting your transactions and data, you'll be able to use your mobile devices to gain admittance to secure areas at work or maybe even at the airport.
What could hold it back: Advanced biometrics will be attractive to corporations, but it surely will add to the price of devices, which could lead to resistance, at least among consumers.
Disruption 13: Augmented reality
Imagine looking at something in the real world - say a building - through your mobile device, then putting a virtual overlay over it. Sounds like a game, but it potentially has some very real-world applications, according to Townsend.
"It will help anything that can benefit from simulation," he said. "An architect working at a construction site, or a firefighter finding a way out of a burning building or a UPS driver visualizing the next 10 steps of his delivery route." Another possibility: A surgeon performing a complicated procedure.
Why it's important: Augmented reality can help us understand the unknown in real time. That will lead to greater safety, more flexibility and better health care.
What could hold it back: This still remains the subject of a lot of research before it becomes practical and affordable.