This particular article has been fermenting for a while, and it took some stimulating discussion during Akademy 2010 to kick it into publication.
I’ve been curious about where the value-added bits will be for mobile device manufacturers in the near future, especially as smartphone technology is pushed down to a near entry-level.
Soft stuff wants to be free
Apple would like us to think it’s all about apps, but I partly disagree. App revenue is only good for early adopters, the people who Gotta Have It Now. Everyone else expects apps to be free. The generation of my teenage sons has decided that if the product is intangible, they shouldn’t have to pay for it. So yes apps can certainly generate money on first introduction but the long tail of revenue will ring largely hollow.
And mobile producers are increasingly realizing that there’s no money to be made in operating systems, either. In fact they’re a large drain on internal resources. Thus Maemo which begat MeeGo, and Symbian being released to the wild.
Hard stuff can’t
With that in mind our focus comes back to hardware. The most immediately obvious way to differentiate in the mobile computer space is with horsepower. CPUs must gain speed in non-linear fashion, memory must steadily double in capacity. Moore’s Law will be even more relevant when app revenue drops out of the picture.
I expect that very soon, mobile computer manufacturers will get really aggressive in forming tight partnerships with CPU foundries. Just look at Nokia’s new bond with Intel. Of course that coupling presents a potentially delicate situation given Nokia’s heavy dependence on ARM processors, so that will be an interesting scenerio to watch unfold. Either way, a CPU arms race will drive such close partnerships as mobile device manufacturers seek any kind of edge over competitors in the area of power. Same might be said for RAM supply as well.
Power to the people
But with great power comes great… battery consumption. As I see it the number one complaint against the otherwise fantastic Nokia N900 is its disrespect for its own battery. Try navigating an unfamiliar city with Ovi Maps, and in a few hours you’ll be racing for a wall outlet.
True mobile computers need to be largely divorced from their electronic tethers. I may be crazy, but I’d like to see such devices go two full days with heavy GPS and Internet usage. That will require some radical engineering.
Nokia is already flirting with this in looking at capturing kinetic energy of mobile computer users. That may help the hyperactive, but not so much those who are only partially mobile. We don’t need to worry about the fact that mobile device use is increasing in the home, as surely sedentary users will be okay with their nearby wall outlets.
Granted that reducing the consumption of GPS, wifi and cell radio is unrealistic, so other than green recharging techniques we are looking at lowering the amperage demands of general electronics as well as increasing battery capacity.
ARM is currently leading the race in power-vs-consumption, but Intel has the resources to close the gap. Either way, CPU current draw must come down (or at least hold steady) as computational needs increase. Not an easy task… but one that Texas Instruments is also pursuing.
The bottom line
But batteries will need more love as well. A simple search shows many manufacturers hard at work developing next generation batteries that will be necessary for heavy mobile use. Here, too, it is in the best interest of mobile device manufacturers to lock up suppliers of the most promising solutions.
So in summary I see CPU power as important, and certainly a compelling user experience as well, but freeing mobile devices from their wall outlet leashes will be the most critical step– or quantum leap– in winning mobile computer customers. Whoever succeeds there will dominate the mobile landscape for some time.