Mobile Hardware Is Going to Disappear

What's next for smartphones? Perhaps a cloak of invisibility. Apple, Samsung and Google are doing their best to make the hardware go away.

Tue, March 19, 2013


"Nobody ever saw [Keyser Soze] or knew anybody that ever worked directly for him, but to hear Kobayashi tell it, anybody could have worked for Soze. You never knew. That was his power. The greatest trick the Devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn't exist. And like that, poof. He's gone." -Verbal Kint, "The Usual Suspects"

If you've ever worn glasses, at one time or another you wondered where they were, only to realize you were wearing them all along. That is the magic of Google Glass, a wearable computing project from Google.

If you're a Star Trek fan, you know crew members on the starship Enterprise can ask a question aloud, and an answer comes seemingly out of nowhere. That is the magic of Apple's Siri and other voice-enabled artificial intelligence engines.

If you've watched the movie "Minority Report," you saw Tom Cruise wave his hands and manipulate floating images. That is the magic of an infrared gesture-detection sensor, a new feature found in the Samsung Galaxy S4 announced last week.

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Each of these scenarios provides a glimpse of the future, where the computer is omnipresent yet invisible. We're not there, of course, but this is where we're headed. Are you using an Apple iPad? Samsung Galaxy smartphone? It won't matter, because the branded hardware—the technology doing the heavy lifting—will eventually fade into the background.

Only human senses will remain: sight, sound and touch colliding with a virtual reality.

Today, so much is made of hardware specs. What's the chip speed? How big is the screen? What's the resolution? How long is the battery life? All good questions, to be sure. But the Galaxy S4, the newest entry in the smartphone market, shows hardware reaching a high water mark. It's getting gimmicky, and it's becoming increasingly unclear where hardware, as we know it, goes from here.

"What more is to be done on the smartphone form factor?" asks Aberdeen Group research director Andrew Borg.

It's time to re-think hardware, Borg says, whereby innovation happens whenever the user and the experience come closer together without technology in the way. To be fair, mobile giants Apple, Google and Samsung are making strides to hide the hardware.

One of the features that most impressed Borg at the Galaxy S4 unveiling last week was the smartphone being used in a car. When the Galaxy S4 is plugged into a cradle designed for a car, the screen's fonts get larger and the brightness adjusts for the driver. The smartphone defaults to the text-to-speech converter so that messages can be heard, not necessarily read.

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