What If The Handset Is No Longer In Your Hand?
By Mike Masnick, Sat Aug 28 00:15:00 GMT 2004

For years, the next trend in mobile phone handset design was clear: they would get smaller. They've gotten about as small as they can be while maintaining the same basic "phone" form, so where does the handset go next?


The earliest Motorola mobile phone wasn't nicknamed "the brick phone" for nothing. It was quite large and, yes, brick shaped. Like any good hardware technology, however, innovation and time has meant miniaturization. Each year, phones proceeded to shrink, from the brick, to merely cumbersome, down to comfortably pocket-sized, all the way down to the point that some were complaining that the phones were simply too small. While there has still been some continued shrinking of phones, for the most part, they appear to have hit a steady size. If anything, they have started moving back in the other direction as smartphones required larger screens and more hardware to include the smarts of the smartphone. However, the end of constant phone shrinkage has some wondering where's the next innovation in handset hardware?

The first stop is obvious. The phones could keep shrinking and simply change in form. Last year, for example, there was plenty of excitement when NTT DoCoMo decided to launch its mobile phone/wristwatch combination Wristomo. For all the attention it generated, however, the Wristomo has been discontinued as interest "waned." Maybe it was just the wristwatch form factor that was the problem? It's been popular lately to see movie stars sporting gem coated phones, suggesting that, perhaps, the phone really is becoming a fashion accessory. So far, however, more mainstream attempts at offering mobile phones as a fashion accessory have failed -- though, some blame the fact that the first attempts weren't actually fashionable.

Perhaps the trick is to stop thinking about the phone in a traditional sense, and start experimenting with entirely new form factors. Already, digital music players are starting to come in wearable form factors, and as the mobile industry starts adding more mobile music offerings, it's likely handset makers will start to explore some of the lessons learned from digital music players as well. The handset is still used in slightly different ways than a digital music player, limiting how effective that form factor may really be. However, it does suggest there may be room for "personal mobile gateways" where the phone becomes modular -- with a hub acting as the main wearable wireless connection, and other components connecting to that hub via a personal area network, using Bluetooth or some other short-range wireless technology.

Thinking even further into the future leads to more possibilities. Researchers in Japan have been working for years on the so-called finger phone, which works by having a user stick his finger into his ear and having the vibrations work to make the sound audible. Sanitary questions aside, it's not hard to leap from that point to one where the phone device itself shrinks down small enough to just be embedded in your ear -- though, that might require improvements in complementary interfaces, such as voice recognition and retinal displays. Still, there could come a day when the concept of the "handset" relates as much to the hand as a record store today sells records.