Cracking the Code of Future Mobile Devices

Tomorrow’s market disruptors and technology codebreakers are working hard to decipher what mobile devices will look like in the future and how they’ll perform differently than today’s counterparts. Will they be bigger, smaller, lighter, handheld, worn or implanted? Which big-bet innovations will yield the biggest payoffs? And which barriers will take the longest to remove?

These questions and many more were posed to more than 200 mobile-device manufacturers and suppliers in The Future of Mobile Devices global survey. Commissioned in July, this latest Molex survey examined the features and enablers expected to guide the development of mobile devices to be built within the next five years. As most manufacturers are already developing their 2023 models, mobile devices manufactured in 2026 might look and operate like current models. Still, game-changing innovations are accelerating rapidly, so there are high expectations we’ll see an altered landscape in a relatively short period of time.

According to the survey, a wide range of disruptive features are anticipated to become standard by 2026. Participants prioritized self-charging or energy-harvesting capabilities (37%); holographic or projection displays (36%); fully recyclable (32%); environment-proof, such as dust- or waterproof (31%); and no-break displays (29%). All of these represent current investment areas, so it’s feasible to expect continued development without conjecturing whether, or if, they will become standard in five years.

Nearly everyone (90%) also believes continued evolution in form factors will alter tomorrow’s mobile devices, yet no consensus was reached on a preferred form factor. While 35% predict dramatically different user experiences (e.g., glasses, watch or other wearables), another 32% expect similar user experiences from slightly different form factors, such as foldable or rollable devices. Finally, 23% of those surveyed don’t expect drastic changes—even if form-factor sizes increase or decrease.

Imagining the Future

Nearly 40 years ago, in an Apple planning meeting, Steve Jobs told his colleagues: “Customers don’t know what they want until we’ve shown them…Our task is to read things that are not yet on the page.” This sentiment still rings true today, especially given the nearly limitless potential of mobile devices to transform how we live, work and play.

When asked about the most likely replacements for today’s typical consumer mobile devices, survey respondents came up with some interesting answers, ranging from smart clothing (40%) and glasses (33%) to earpieces (29%), watches (29%) and implants (2%). While it’s unlikely that smart clothing will prevail, it’s safe to assume that functionality will be delivered on a combination of devices best suited for the specific function. For example, features requiring local compute power or longer battery life could be relegated to one device while other functionality could be transferred to another.

I’m hard-pressed to think that all we’ll need in the future are smart glasses. But it’s amusing to imagine everyone running around looking for them only to discover they’ve been on top of their heads all along. My vote is for a combination of devices that align components, processing power and functionality on the most ideal hardware platform for delivering optimal performance, such as AR glasses paired with a watch.

Uses Cases: Ultimate Market Drivers

The best possible gauge of what the future holds will be driven by use cases, as apps should drive form factors, not the other way around. On the home-front, for instance, smartphones and smart wearables could serve as the “home hub” to control smart doorbells, appliances, climate control systems, lighting, home security systems, cleaning systems—even food prep. A great example is smart water-tech systems that push real-time alerts to mobile devices as soon as leaks happen, so that water can be shut off remotely.

Another major use case is mobile payments. According to a report from finance and investment company Finaria, the mobile wallet industry will grow to $2.4 trillion by 2023, with the likes of WeChat Pay, AliPay, Apple Pay and Samsung Pay at the forefront. While there is no debate that China is setting the pace of adoption, the U.S. mobile payment market is second with recent growth attributed to the rapid rate retailers adopted contactless payments during COVID-19.

Perhaps the most impactful area, however, is connected healthcare. Thanks to a steady stream of applications, ranging from helpful to lifesaving, the likes of Apple, Fitbit and Samsung often describe their wearables as health monitoring devices. Non-invasive glucose monitoring connected to smartwatches and smartphones has the potential to transform the lives of diabetics. This holds major promise to lessen the impact of a disease projected to affect 700 million people by 2045, according to the International Diabetes Federation.

Equally interesting is recent news about Apple’s patent for a hydration-measurement feature that could be used in the Apple Watch band to automatically measure one or more electrical properties of perspiration produced by the wearer. Of course, Apple is making headway across the entire spectrum of use cases, including Augmented Reality (AR), as company CEO Tim Cook is adamant that AR will play a critical role in Apple’s future. Likewise, other major players are heavily motivated to move this use case forward.

Clearing Hurdles to Crack the Code

Despite the enormous potential and continued investment in the future of mobile devices, significant technology hurdles persist. According to the survey participants, the most difficult problems to address are performance of 5G cellular connectivity (37%), high-speed wireless charging (37%), battery life (36%), sustainability (35%) and inability to produce small components at micro or nano scale (27%). Luckily, there’s an equal measure of innovations producing significant benefits.

Survey respondents expect to see the greatest amount of innovation in data connectivity (42%), wireless charging (36%), cameras (33%), Wi-Fi connectivity (28%) and built-in speakers (28%). Additionally, 82% expect consumers to reap significant benefits from 5G-enabled mobile devices by 2026. Ultra-fast 5G or mmWave ranked first (42%) in enabling technologies forecasted to drive disruption in mobile device manufacturing, followed by two-way wireless charging (30%), optical waveguides for smart glasses (30%), cameras with wafer-level optics (29%) and nanoscale or micro-scale components (26%).

Based on findings from this survey, the mobile device of the future is still coming into focus. It’s my belief that “cracking the code” requires collaboration across the entire ecosystem of mobile-device manufacturers, application developers and suppliers of components and connectors—and staying agile, particularly in terms of design and manufacturing capabilities to keep pace with whatever comes next. Molex works alongside the top codebreakers, including the world’s largest and most innovative tech companies. In our role as a trusted supplier, we provide the largest manufacturing volumes of the smallest, densest and most powerful connectors for 5G mmWave antennas, power, camera and display technologies. We’re committed to helping our partners crystallize their visions for tomorrow’s game-changing consumer technology products. After all, the future of mobile devices depends on it.

Vice President and General Manager Micro Solutions Business Unit at Molex