Mobility in the year 2020

I was recently working on a long range planning exercise, and one of the issues I was asked to address was where the market for mobility was likely to be by the year 2020? Given my normal hard-core focus on getting product out the door ASAP, asking where the market is going to be almost a decade away made me shake my head and say “huh?” I sat back and started thinking about this, and the more I thought about it the more interesting the process became. Maybe the first step in deciding where we’ll be in ten years is to compare where we are now relative to ten years ago.

The Mobile Communications Phase

For the sake of convenience, let’s call it the year 2000. Everyone had cell phones, but they were feature phones, not smartphones. People were adjusting to being able to make phone calls at any time, from nearly any location (and at the time, that was pretty cool). RIM was making pagers, not phones, and the iPhone/iPad juggernaut was still seven years away from breaking the surface. This was very much the Mobile Communications Phase. A lot has obviously happened since then; RIM introduced the Blackberry, and suddenly phones became far more useful, Apple eventually rolled out the iPhone, and mobile phones went from useful to way cool almost overnight. It also ushered in the next phase, which is where we are now.

The Mobile Information Phase

Now that were into the second decade of the 21st century, we have clearly evolved from the Mobile Communications Phase to the Mobile Information Phase. We now go through life surrounded by infinite knowledge, and all we need to do to access it is swipe our finger on a small piece of glass. There are lots of vendors pushing into this space, with the most serious traction going to Apple and Samsung. People are still getting used to the idea of instant knowledge, regardless of where they are, and it is fundamentally changing our cultural epistemology. So given where we are, where are we headed?

The number of smartphones in active use is not likely to increase much beyond where it is, this is simply a function of how many people there are to buy/use a smartphone (which is to say, mobile device growth at some point will start to correlate more closely to population growth). We are currently at around 7 billion humans, and somewhere around 6 billion + mobile devices. By 2020 there will be around 7.6 billion of us, and so the number of devices in use is not going to increase that much, but there will be lots of upgrades as new devices continue to roll out, (I mean, who won’t want the iPhone15 or iPad10?).

The number of tablets will increase considerably, of course tablets are coming off a much smaller base than smartphones, so the upside is more significant. What could be more interesting is the development of a smartphone/tablet hybrid; what if you can change the size of your smartphone to accommodate specific business or entertainment needs? When you open up a laptop now, you effectively double the surface area you’re working with, what if you could do that twice on a smartphone (that is, 4X the surface area)? Unfold your smartphone twice, and you’re holding a tablet. There’s lot of hardware based permutations possible, and I expect people will tire of carrying around two devices when one hybrid can do the trick. But the real growth area, the real future of mobility is something else entirely.

The Mobile Environment Phase

If the first phase was Mobile Communications, and the second phase is Mobile Information, the next phase will be the Mobile Environment. By environment I mean anything you can touch, see, sense on any level will become an enabler of the mobile life. This will be driven by the integration of a much more massive ecosystem which already has over a trillion elements in play; specifically wireless devices, including sensors, RFID chips, grid networks, etc. The machine to machine space is a much bigger opportunity in the long run, and is also part of the mobile ecosystem. If you can stick a chip in it, you can give it an IP address, and you can mobilize it and analyze it. This can literally be applied to nearly anything, as well as to the component elements of anything; examples could include:

Transportation: you don’t just track a rail car, you track the pressure on the spring assembly, you separately track wear and tear on ball bearings, rail line wear, etc. Your automobile will be riddled with sensors which speak to each other on a continuous basis as you drive around, with the express intention of protecting you. They will also speak to other cars to avoid hazardous conditions, e.g water pooled on third lane of 280 southbound by Page Mill Road—cars approaching this location will automatically slow down, in fact BMW is already testing prototypes of this.

Consumer Packaged Goods: You walk into a grocery store, your iPhone15 uses location based services to know exactly where you are (Safeway) and automatically sends a request to your refrigerator to ping the food inside (hey milk, are you fresh?). The milk carton has an RFID tag with a sensor that tracks date of packaging, and knows that it expired yesterday (why no, refrigerator, I’m not fresh at all). Orange juice, on the other hand, tells the fridge it’s okay. The refrigerator sends a message back to the iPhone telling you what exactly to buy based on what you need to update, you drop everything into a cart, and walk right out of the store, since all the groceries have RFID tags, no need to check out, it happens automatically as you exit past a scanner, and the information is sent through your iPhone, to your bank to debit your account.

Health Services: We have an aging boomer population, and (unfortunately) a statistically significant population that will be susceptible to illnesses such as Alzheimer’s that require close supervision. Bracelets with RFID chips that contain the users complete medical history, including up to the moment medication doses, will become a standard part of care protocol. Furthermore, location-based technology can be used to know exactly where grandma wandered off to, and perimeter alerts can be set up to keep her from straying too far. Doctors can do a much more efficient job of remote diagnostics by analyzing small fluid samples in portable devices that can transmit data into a patient database that correlates across a vast array of clinical, historical, and personal data and provides the optimal solution to the patients current care requirements.

These are, of course, quick examples, there is a vast adjacent set of opportunities in both collaboration and analytics which will be executed through the enterprise and their associated supply chain, which I will address in a future blog.

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