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The Future of Mobile Phones
Use Any Phone on Any Wireless Network
The reason most cell phones are so cheap is that wireless carriers subsidize them so you'll sign a long-term contract. Open access could change the economics of the mobile phone (and mobile data) business dramatically as the walls preventing certain devices from working on certain networks come down. We could also see a rapid proliferation of cell phone models, with smaller companies becoming better able to make headway into formerly closed phone markets.
What is it? Two years is an eternity in the cellular world. The original iPhone was announced, introduced, and discontinued in less than that time, yet carriers routinely ask you to sign up for two-year contracts if you want access to their discounted phones. (It could be worse--in other countries, three years is normal.) Verizon launched the first volley late last year when it promised that "any device, any application" would soon be allowed on its famously closed network. Meanwhile, AT&T and T-Mobile like to note that their GSM networks have long been "open."
When is it coming? Open access is partially here: You can use almost any unlocked GSM handset on AT&T or T-Mobile today, and Verizon Wireless began certifying third-party devices for its network in July (though to date the company has approved only two products). But the future isn't quite so rosy, as Verizon is dragging its feet a bit on the legal requirement that it keep its newly acquired 700-MHz network open to other devices, a mandate that the FCC agreed to after substantial lobbying by Google. Some experts have argued that the FCC provisions aren't wholly enforceable. However, we won't really know how "open" is defined until the new network begins rolling out, a debut slated for 2010.
Your Fingers Do Even More Walking
Last year Microsoft introduced Surface, a table with a built-in monitor and touch screen; many industry watchers have seen it as a bellwether for touch-sensitive computing embedded into every device imaginable. Surface is a neat trick, but the reality of touch devices may be driven by something entirely different and more accessible: the Apple iPhone.
What is it? With the iPhone, "multitouch" technology (which lets you use more than one finger to perform specific actions) reinvented what we knew about the humble touchpad. Tracing a single finger on most touchpads looks positively simian next to some of the tricks you can do with two or more digits. Since the iPhone's launch, multitouch has found its way into numerous mainstream devices, including the Asus Eee PC 900 and a Dell Latitude tablet PC. Now all eyes are turned back to Apple, to see how it will further adapt multitouch (which it has already brought to its laptops' touchpads). Patents that Apple has filed for a multitouch tablet PC have many people expecting the company to dive into this neglected market, finally bringing tablets into the mainstream and possibly sparking explosive growth in the category.
When is it coming? It's not a question of when Multitouch will arrive, but how quickly the trend will grow. Fewer than 200,000 touch-screen devices were shipped in 2006. iSuppli analysts have estimated that a whopping 833 million will be sold in 2013. The real guessing game is figuring out when the old "single-touch" pads become obsolete, possibly taking physical keyboards along with them in many devices.