Mobile in 2015

My bookshelves are filled with obsolete tech books. A lot of these relate to mobile technology. At one time, each was up to date, even cutting edge. But of course, the mobile landscape is changing - faster than almost anyone can even keep up. The reach of mobile technology has exceeded other mass media in scale, with no signs of slowing down.

So where is it all heading? The only sure bet is that the mobile universe a few years from now will look very different from today's. But there are several social, economic, and technology trends running under the radar, which I believe give strong clues about where things are heading: not just next year, or the year after that, but looking farther afield, into the year 2015. Here are my three predictions for what the mobile world will look like then:

1. Video Calling and Customer Service
Video calling will become common and work well across carriers - revolutionizing call centers and customer service.
2. The Pocket Notebook
The smart phone will continue to grow in power and capability, until it replaces the notebook computer for the average professional. Instead of carrying both a laptop and a smartphone, you'll carry one pocket-sized device everywhere you go.
3. Mobile ID
Mobile phones will serve as wallets for identification, taking the place of loyalty and membership cards; student and organizational IDs; and eventually, government ids such as driver's licenses. (This is separate and very different from making payments with mobile phones, as is already starting to happen.)

Video Calling and Customer Service

1. Video calling will become common and work well across carriers - revolutionizing call centers and customer service.

If you manage a call center, get ready to update your dress code.

For decades, two-way, realtime communication with faraway folks has been possible. All mobile has done so far is make that easier and more portable. But video is finally being added to the mix. And very importantly, video calling is going to see widespread, mainstream usage, and NOT be relegated to a rarely-used novelty.

Mainstream video telephony has a long history of being predicted, then failing to happen. So why am I willing to go out on a limb and predict a hard date now? What's changed?

Quite a bit, actually, and not just in technology (though that's obviously a key part of it). Some economic and social thresholds have been passed, setting the stage for real, widespread adoption.

First, the technical parts. Smartphones now have high quality, front-facing cameras. It's not quite standard equipment yet, but it's becoming a desired feature. And critically, the component cost is getting quite low. This is essential because of the current chicken-and-egg situation. Mobile video calling won't take off until many people have phones that easily support it. But the front-facing camera is not yet a "must-have" feature that consumers demand. So the only way it will become standard equipment is if they are cheap enough to include as a nice but non-essential phone feature.

The other side of the coin is network capacity. The high throughput, low latency data connections required for realtime video telephony are just now on the horizon for the mass market. Facetime video between two iPhone 4 devices has been measured as using under 392 Kbps; that's about in line with what Skype video needs, at least for non-HD video quality. Can today's mobile data networks handle that?

Almost. Right now, in mid-2011, you can make Skype video calls on a small selection of Android phones and on the iPhone 4 over 3G (as well as wi-fi, which typically provides a much fatter pipe). Naturally, the quality will be better when using a higher throughput data connection. (I think this is why iOS' Facetime video still requires the faster wifi connection, in line with the company's "don't do it at all until we can do it great" philosophy.)

In my opinion, the kind of two-way video quality you can get over a pair of 3G connections isn't good enough to entice the burgeoning masses. But that from 4G data network speeds will. And we're starting to see such speeds reach the marketplace, with phones using "almost-4G" technologies available already, and "real" 4G likely being available starting in 2012.

The social aspects are, in some ways, the most interesting. People are starting to realize the value that video calling can bring. Mainstream video chat solutions keep popping up. Video chatting with Google Plus Hangouts and Facebook video calling are, for now, desktop-only. But the fact that there is so much interest and excitement is enough to demonstrate the main point: people are ready to converse in this way.

There's also the fact that people are simply becoming more comfortable sharing themselves visually... a social shift evidenced by an estimated 100 billion photos having been shared on Facebook.

Everything is in place for widespread mobile video calling to manifest. The best glimpse of the future I know of is Tango, which makes video calling from one smartphone to another simple and easy. It works over 3G connections, but currently only between Android and iPhone devices that have the Tango app installed. It's not a big stretch to imagine a world in which every smartphone has such capability baked in, right out of the box.

Will video calling someday overtake traditional voice calls? It seems unlikely. Over time, people will get more and more used to video calling. But in many situations, just voice works perfectly well. And sometimes "voice-only" is preferable: it's nice to call people without having to worry about how I'm dressed. And of course, there is the privacy of those people around me to consider.

Yet there are many situations where both caller and receiver will prefer to communicate face to face. And this leads into the business implications. Many companies have call centers of some sort, for sales or customer service. As video calling hits the mainstream, enterprising enterprises will be able to take advantage.

One obvious area: customer service. It's well known that when a client calls in to solve a problem, personalizing the interaction - for example, by having the rep introduce themselves by name - tends to result in higher satisfaction. And letting the customer see the representative's face is a great way to magnify this level of intimacy.

While unproven, the idea has such potential that some companies have already implemented it. Starwood hotels allows its preferred guests to talk with customer service via Facetime. The scope of this is obviously limited by the fact that, at this moment, only their clients with iPhone 4s can use it, and only when using a wifi connection. But that circle will expand over time as robust video calling becomes more common.

Another potential business application: sales. Common sales wisdom emphasizes how simple things like visual appearance, good posture, and direct eye contact can greatly increase the odds of closing the sale. None of that is possible with a normal phone call, but video telephony will make it easy for sales people to leverage those nonverbal communication skills.

The Computer In Your Pocket

2. The smart phone will continue to grow in power and capability, until it fully replaces the notebook computer for the average professional.

If you own a smartphone, guess what: you are already carrying a computer in your pocket.

You probably think of your computer and your smartphone as rather different electronic devices. And they are, because right now you do very different things with them. On your notebook computer, you write articles, work with spreadsheets, do your taxes. On your phone, you send and receive text messages, take pictures, and make phone calls.

But things are shifting in a big way. The CEOs of the big computer companies are unanimous that today's smartphones should be considered computers. As reported by Tomi Ahonen, former Nokia executive and prolific mobile book author, companies like Hewlett-Packard, Dell, Toshiba, Lenovo, Acer, Apple and more are already planning their future business strategies around this new reality: that smartphones have passed a threshold in power and capability, and are now more like your full computer than the simple mobile phone you had a few years ago.

This is starting to show in the things you do in both your smartphone and full computer today. You read and reply to email. You browse the web. You play games and watch videos.

So if smartphones are already full computers, what has to happen before you can just take your phone on that business trip, and not have to lug around your laptop?

Two things, really. First, smartphones have to become more powerful as computers. This refers to the technical dimensions: file storage capacity, amount of memory for applications, and processor speed. Paired with this will be improvements in battery technology, to ensure long battery life for such beefier devices.

This is happening already. It's only a short matter of time before an average smartphone has the raw computing power needed.

Something else has to change, though, as evidenced by what you don't do with your smartphone. You read and reply to email, but few of us compose long emails on our phone. You'll browse the web, but visit different websites on your phone and notebook. If you play video games, you'll play different kinds of games on the two.

The root of this dichotomy comes down to the interface: how you, the human user, put information into your computer, and get information out. In many situations, having a large computer screen, full-size keyboard and mouse are just very useful. Building a large spreadsheet is no fun today on a three-inch-wide touch screen; and it probably won't be much easier in 2015.

Instead, you will be able to plug a large-screen monitor, keyboard and mouse directly into your smartphone. You may have a set of these at your desk at home, and another at work. To use them, you just take out your phone, plug it in, and sit down at the desk. (For convenience, you'll just have to plug a single wire into a hub, which all the peripherals connect to.) Hotel rooms and maybe even airline seats will start including them.

There's already a name for this: the so-called "thin client" terminal. The idea is that everything needed for input and output is collected together, in an integrated set of devices. The terminal itself has no computing power; its sole purpose is to connect to a real computer somewhere else.

The earliest terminals we'd recognize found widespread use in the 1970s, and connected by long wires to the computers of the time - which was sometimes a refrigerator-sized computer in its own room down the hall. As computers themselves became tremendously smaller and cheaper in the 1990s, terminals became unnecessary, and just fell out of use. But mobile computing will give them a new life.

What about when traveling, or if you're away from the office? After all, we all have notebooks instead of desktop computers now for a reason! In fact, you'll be able to get a portable terminal that will fold up for easy carrying. It will look much like a very thin version of today's laptop computers, but won't have any computing "smarts" itself. Instead, it will have a connector for your smartphone maybe even a kind of slot that the phone itself slides into. The combination will look and act much like a high-end notebook computer does today.

Expect to see giant changes in the phone's software to support such a reality, from operating-system level support for dual-mode computing, to new GUI metaphors enabling apps to show both desktop and mobile "faces".

Mobile ID

3. Mobile phones will serve as wallets for identification, taking the place of loyalty and membership cards; student and organizational IDs; and eventually, government IDs such as driver's licenses.

A lot is going on right now with mobile payments. But there's a different, equally important aspect to the "your phone is your wallet" story.

In modern society, we are constantly required to identify ourselves - to prove to various people and organizations that we are who we say we are, and eligible for certain services. These include:

  • Proof of age. Are you over 21? Are you old enough for a senior citizen discount?
  • Proof of membership. Do you have a library card? Are you a member of this gym? If you want to get into the student union, are you a student of this university?
  • Proof of belonging to a general group. If you want a student discount, are you a student anywhere?
  • Proof of meeting other criteria, such as residency in a certain region. The arboretum near my house lets city residents in for free, but charges people visiting from out of town.
  • Protecting physical access, to prevent intrusion. Are you allowed to enter this building?
  • Identifying your customer account. Do you have a discount card for this grocery store?
  • Identifying yourself. Are you in fact Mr. John Smith, as you claim?

You probably manage all this right now by carrying a lot of plastic cards around, in your purse or wallet. As the technology for such ID card systems has matured, and become cheaper, more organizations have started to issue their own. The sad result: most of us are carrying many more cards today that we'd prefer.

For those of us who aren't happily pack rats, there is good news. Very soon, mobile phones will start being able to replace these. Your phone will serve to identify you, in many of the ways listed above.

As with mobile payments, a key enabling technology will be "contactless" technology, namely NFC. Reader devices will securely read the identification stored in the phone. Other mechanisms might be used as well - such as scanning a bar code on the mobile screen - but the central idea of the phone being the identification device will be the same.

On a scale in which security is increasingly important, IDs fall in different categories:

  • Those with low security and accuracy requirements, such as store loyalty cards, and ID programs that exist primarily for marketing purposes.
  • Identification that has some mild financial association, including things such as library cards and gym memberships.
  • Memberships with moderate security needs, such as student identification; membership for private or exclusive organizations; and after-hours property access for office buildings and apartment complexes.
  • State-level government-issued identification such as driver's licenses.
  • National and international identification, such as passports and visas.

The low to mid-range will happen first. By 2015, the NFC-based infrastructure will have been in place long enough that many businesses will be comfortable using it for things other than low security.

What will drive adoption? After all, workable solutions exist for all of the above right now. Why will organizations want to switch to a mobile based identification system? The short answer is that (a) it is becoming not only possible, but feasible and practical; and (b) the shift will bring added conveniences for organizations that need to identify people in this way. This will translate into incentives for end consumers to get on board.

The forces moving civilization down this road are complex, and operate at governmental and industry levels. A lot of the reasoning and work behind smartcards for identification directly apply, and in fact I see mobile phones riding their same momentum. Suddenly it's apparent that mobile phones have the potential to work better as IDs than smartcards in almost every way; the shift from smartcards to smartphones seems inevitable.

What if I lose my phone?

If your phone contains all sorts of personal identifying and payment information, it seems like it would be a tasty target for theft. But there is one way in which a mobile phone wallet is much more secure than a regular one.

I hope you have never suffered the experience of having your physical wallet or purse stolen. When that happens, one thing you have to deal with is revoking every payment and identification card it held. If you have six different credit cards, that means you have to quickly dig up the theft-reporting hotlines for six different banks. And what if there is a card in there you forgot about?

In comparison, revoking everything on your mobile phone is going to be very easy. You'll make one call to your phone company. They will be able to instantly lock the secure element in your missing phone, preventing anyone from using any of your IDs or making purchases on your dime.

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