Hardware is key for future mobile phones
The saying, "hardware is the new software" refers, at least in part, to companies such as Google and Microsoft piling into mobile phone hardware. In this article we share some of the findings in the new IDTechEx report analysing these developments, Future Mobile Phone/Cell Phone Technology and Functions 2014-2024. One such finding is that at least half of the wish list for new mobile phone functions expressed by the public and expert commentators is only realisable if radically new hardware proves to be both feasible and affordable. That means hardware in both future phones and in enabling wireless networks. This is the stuff of future market dominance.
Unique hardware gains market share
Samsung shot past Apple in handset sales partly because its OLED displays are preferred. Now, it is probable that Apple will further lose market share if it does not incorporate Near Field Communication (NFC) hardware available in the phones of most competitors. It is not just that NFC on its own is the basis of many desirable functions such as payment, fast access to networks, including via posters and labels, and fast transfer of files. NFC will also be part of "sensor fusion" where sensors placed in phones for one purpose are used in concert for others. The chips from Freescale and others provide the necessary processing.
Sensor fusion mimics how primitive sensors in the human body are combined to provide sophisticated functions. A simple equivalent in a phone is how NFC reading is combined with the accelerometer to monitor the type of swipe or touch across an NFC tag, giving a more intelligent human interface. We must add actuators and emitters such as 3D printed loudspeakers. Cornell researchers in the Creative Machines Lab have 3D printed a working loudspeaker, seamlessly integrating the plastic, conductive and magnetic parts, and ready for use almost as soon as it comes out of the printer. It is an achievement that 3D printing experts know will soon be the norm. Rather than assembling consumer products from parts and components, complete functioning products will be fabricated at once, on demand.
Sensor fusion for positioning
The huge potential of sensor fusion is illustrated in the race for Indoor Positioning Systems (IPS) for phones, given that we spend 85% of our time indoors, out of reach of the navigation satellites. This is a tough one, partly because we need 3D positioning (location and attitude) in a multi-storey building, not the 2D that suffices for a car on a road. One method favoured in the development laboratories is inertial navigation (dead reckoning) using the accelerometer, regularly re-calibrated barometer and gyroscope put in the phones for other reasons. This sensor fusion needs frequent fixes from ubiquitous technology, pre-existing Bluetooth or WiFi currently being favoured in development, though their accuracy and availability leaves something to be desired. At the other extreme, dedicated Real Time Location Systems (RTLS) are patched in, usually incorporating multiple readers and tagged objects. However, most of these RTLS systems are secure and private and therefore not available to the casual phone user.
Steve Gray, CTO of CSR plc, formerly Cambridge Silicon Radio, tells us that they prioritise mobile phones with their impressive silicon developments. CSR is a multinational fabless semiconductor company headquartered in Cambridge, United Kingdom. Its main products are connectivity, audio, imaging and location chips. It is the world's 13th-largest fabless semiconductor company. Current positioning/ locating activities include mobile phone location using WiFi, Bluetooth and dead reckoning. The "Surfstar" combines those outdoor Global Navigation Satellite Systems (GNSS) and indoor location. Uniquely CSR creates an automatic form of the necessary indoor radio fingerprinting/signal mapping of the emissions from WiFi nodes using their WiFi RFID chip with Received Signal Strength Indication (RSSI). RSSI is a crude technology for extracting location from signals: it is made adquate by the automated radio fingerprinting. Ubisense, the high-performance ultra wide band (UWB) RTLS leader, CSR and its peers tell us that IPS and RTLS are converging rapidly.
Apple is providing low cost tags called i-Beacon, competing with the CSR chip. Steve Gray feels that the concentration of Apple, Google and others on fundamentally inaccurate WiFi schemes in the interests of universality is not ideal. CSR sees its offering as intermediate in capability between most WiFi and Bluetooth location and custom RTLS.
Tipping the balance
The apps writers are essential to the future of mobile phones and that is not hardware. Apps writers rushed to write for Apple when was headed for market dominance, but now they find Android attractive, with its superior adoption. Next, they will rush to write for phones with new sensors and two-way radio interfaces such as NFC that they can leverage. Phone manufacturers can tip the balance in this way. Add to that phones tolerant of the higher power new parts such as NFC and large screens. That higher power tolerance will be achieved by a combination of better batteries and multiple energy harvesting.
Maybe supercapacitors for deeper discharge of batteries will appear as they do in electric vehicles to increase range. Very fast charging capability can come from rip cords, crank handles, shaking or vibration, feeding supercapacitors and high power density batteries, some being structural components or smart skin developed at Volvo, Imperial College London, Warwick University UK and elsewhere. Graphene supercapacitors and supercabatteries (asymmetrical electrochemical double layer capacitors (AEDLC)) are widely being developed, mainly in the USA. They promise up to 200 Wh/kg, ahead of lithium-ion batteries today and with four times the life and eventually cheaper materials. For more on all this see the IDTechEx report, Supercapacitor / Ultracapacitor Interviews, Strategies, Road Map 2014-2025.
The race for flexible phones
Increased market share boosted by attracting apps writers will also be driven by who is first with very flexible displays preferably with haptic (you feel what you do) keyboards and transparent photovoltaics or at least tightly rollable opaque photovoltaics on the back to charge the batteries. Indeed even flexible batteries have been demonstrated recently. Samsung has tested the market for larger rigid phones successfully with the Galaxy 4. It has only been a failure in Japan. It is not a phablet - just a basic phone - but because so many people like the big screen, a basic phone with such a large body can next have a tightly-rolled, even-bigger OLED screen in the side. Samsung has said that it will launch phones with such screens. They pull out then snap in for storage.
Achieving this poses formidable hardware challenges calling for printed OLEDs and other printed electronics including alternatives to Indium Tin Oxide (ITO) transparent electrodes, where printed silver nanowires are a strong candidate, and flexible barrier layers. To get reasonable battery charging from the sun, new tightly rollable printed photovoltaics (PV) is being developed including fully organic photovoltaics with about 10% efficiency. IDTechEx has reports on each of these OLED, PV and other flexible layers and devices and the work is summarised in the over-arching report quoted at the beginning of this article. Just as apps writers are attracted by new sensors they can leverage, those designing "must have" phone hardware will jump at flexible, foldable and tightly rollable technology - a dream ticket for the creative designer. Competitive advantage beckons.
New intelligence about next generation phone hardware
Raghu Das, CEO, of analyst IDTechEx says, "We believe that many new sensors and flexible screens will become commonplace in phones within the coming decade. That will create multi-billion dollar new businesses. In addition to the widest range of reports on these emerging subjects, we now have the IDTechEx Market Intelligence Portal for Printed Electronics where our nine PhDs continuously file their interviews from across the world, encompassing mobile phone technologies, energy harvesting, 3D printing and new enabling components and materials. It even contains assessments of development programs and links to a huge resource of conference slides and other data not available on the web. As another service to this industry, we stage the largest events on printed electronics and all these allied subjects in one venue, the next being Printed Electronics Europe in Berlin, from 1-2 April 2014."
For more information, see all our reports on future mobile phone technologies.