What’s Shaping the Phone of the Future?

Mobile computing device usage has come a long way since the first Personal Digital Assistants (PDAs) were introduced by PSION back in 1980. Since the introduction of touchscreen phones, they have become ubiquitous and have become the go-to standard for productivity and anytime/anywhere access to the people we love and the jobs we do.  In 2020, 6 billion smartphones were in use around the world, meaning 78% of the global population owned one. And smartphone adoption is still growing, with the device count expected to rise to over 7 billion devices by 2024. These pocket supercomputers are so integral to modern life – and the momentum will most certainly continue with yet more technological advancements grounded in driving incremental use and value. So, what does the future hold?

 To start creating a picture of the mobile device of the future, Molex asked more than 200 high-level decision-makers, suppliers, and manufacturers in the smartphone industry what they think the mobile phone of the future, or its replacement, will look like. The results highlighted some key areas of potential impending change.

AR as a game-changer

While features like 5G, self-charging, integral biosensors, and environment-proof phones are strongly anticipated, it was good to see that Augmented Reality (AR) is also an area of expected enhancement.  While it remains to be seen if this will happen, clearly the optimism highlights the massive potential of this unique technology to revolutionize how we interact with our environment through our mobile phones.

Big firms like Apple, Google and Facebook agree. On September 9th, Facebook made its initial move toward AR with the introduction of Ray-Ban Stories. While the first generation of these $299 smart glasses lack AR, they represent a step in that direction, using Ray-Ban’s classic Wayfarer frames to let users take photos and videos, listen to music and answer phone calls.

To drive AR momentum, Facebook, Apple and Google all have provided developers with open source AR toolkits, like Apple’s ARKit and Google’s ARCore, to allow them to incorporate AR into the apps being built today. Apple’s Tim Cook is a fan of the technology, having said in 2019 that AR is critically important to Apple’s future.  “AR and machine learning will be key to delivering the right information to the right person at the right time,” he said. Google is also introducing dual cameras to its latest phones to boost AR performance.

The time is right too. The pandemic has introduced a whole new audience to AR-powered online shopping, learning, and healthcare, with AR allowing people to visualize products, concepts, and experiences in unprecedented ways. Ikea enables consumers to place full-scale furniture and other products into a living room to see how they look and fit in the space. Fashion retailers are providing online fitting rooms so customers can try on clothes virtually. AR learning apps bring teaching to life – enabling users to virtually explore the human heart or use AR-assisted virtual tours of museums and galleries. Tourists can already identify landmarks and learn about them using AR-assisted city guide mobile apps. BMW offers AR walkthroughs on engine repair, and homebuyers can visualize and experience home tours and selection from the comfort of their kitchens. AR is already making its presence felt in countless aspects of human life.

Limiting factors for AR adoption

For a new mobile technology to go mainstream, it needs to be easy to use, available, and reliable to the extent that users barely even notice they’re using it. AR on mobile still has some barriers to overcome to make this true for the general population. Machine learning and the batteries needed to power it must improve to create a realistic AR experience. Indeed, anyone who has played Pokémon Go has experienced how AR usage can drain a phone battery with remarkable speed.

OEMs must preserve as much space as they can to support the inclusion of critical battery technology, so microminiaturization plays a starring role in AR evolution. The promised revolution in battery technology has yet to become a reality, so there is still a long way to go before the largest component in a smartphone isn’t the battery that powers it.

Connectivity is another issue. The advent of 5G will provide the security and latency needed to enable devices to use AR effectively. 5G infrastructure and capabilities are expanding around the world, and as phone manufacturers move from 4G to 5G devices, AR functionality and usability will improve. For this reason, we believe it’s not likely that there will be a 5G revolution, but rather an evolution. As 5G devices become more commonplace, developers will take advantage of the increased connectivity to make ubiquitous and seamless AR a reality.

Auxiliary devices

Of course, the mobile device of the future may not be the mobile device as we know it today, especially when it comes to augmented reality. The ability to interact with AR hands-free may be a significant driver in adopting mobile devices like headsets and other wearables, whether they connect with mobile phones or are offered as standalone devices. First, though, there are hurdles that need to be overcome. For example, current headsets like Hololens require incremental hardware that can be costly and bulky, and users would typically prefer to enjoy augmented content in a hands-free setting.  Still, with decreases in size, weight, and cost, and improvements in technology like eye-tracking, gesture control, and voice commands, adoption is likely to become significantly more widespread.

Other wearables like smartwatches have proven that current cell phone functions can be replicated in lightweight, unobtrusive devices. They are already paving the way for a future where the rectangular form factors we use today won’t necessarily serve as our main portable computing devices in the future.

Supplier agility is table stakes

No one truly knows what mobile phones or devices will look like in the future, so suppliers will be well served to proactively join forces with companies like Molex to ensure they have the innovation and engineering capabilities to meet market demand with the right solutions at the right time. As the largest connector supplier to the mobile phone market, Molex is already leading the way — providing the research and development, innovation and reliability needed for the device of the future – whatever that future may hold.

VP, Consumer Market