Mobile tech 2010: Trends to change our lives

A reporter seeks insight into what the next two years hold for mobile computing -- and comes away hopeful

The past two years have been exciting ones for mobility, with the dawn of netbooks, 4G communications, and the first smartphones without keypads. The next two should be just as attention-grabbing, if not more so, as a slew of new technologies make workers more productive on the road.

Last year, for the first time, notebooks outsold desktop computers, according to iSuppli Corp., a tech analyst firm, showing that the move to a mobile lifestyle is under way. "It's just the start," observes Steve Kleynhans, a research vice president at Gartner Inc. "2009 and 2010 will be big years for mobility, with major advances coming that will affect what we carry and how we work and play."

[ Read InfoWorld's "Notes from the netbook revolution." And get the latest on mobile developments with InfoWorld's Mobile Report newsletter. ]

I went in search of what the face of mobility might look like in 2010 and came away optimistic that the world will be a better and easier place for mobile workers to get their jobs done. After talking to a dozen analysts, engineers, and marketing types -- sorry, no fortune tellers -- and sifting through a mountain of technical material, it became clear that these advances are just the beginning of what could be the start of a golden age of mobility, where work gets done wherever you might be.

On top of more powerful small notebooks with better batteries and faster data access, there will be high-powered smartphones, as well as two high-speed wireless networks to choose from that will deliver broadband speeds on demand. Here are five areas that may quickly change the face of mobility.

High-class netbooks
The big story in 2008 was the rise of the netbook from a marketing idea to sales of 14 million units, according to Austin-based DisplaySearch's estimate of year-end sales. But while these tiny notebooks work well as a second or third computer, they lack the performance needed for a primary work system.

That will change quickly later this year, when netbooks start shipping with Intel's dual-core Atom processor. The Model 330 Atom processor has a pair of computational cores -- like the Core 2 Duo chips -- for churning through heavy-duty work. Right now, computer makers are sampling the chip and integrating it into a new generation of netbooks and other products.

"2009 will be the year of the netbook," explains Kleynhans. "They will be small and light enough to take everywhere and just powerful enough for most workers." Adding a second computational core, says Kleynhans, won't double the system's abilities, but the new Atom chip will likely boost overall performance of these small wonders by about 50 percent and bring them to about the level of mainstream systems. Look for them sometime this summer or fall.

Netbook graphics will be improved as well. Intel is teaming with Nvidia to package its capable GeForce 9400M graphics accelerator (the same being used on Apple's new MacBook Pro notebooks) with the Atom CPUs. The chip combo will take netbooks beyond Web browsing, e-mail, and simple applications to handle complex graphics and high-definition video.

Intel will not be alone in boosting netbook performance. Later this year, AMD plans to focus on ultraportable computing with its Athlon Neo family of single- and double-core processors. According to the company, Neo will be packaged with ATI Radeon Avivo video to make quick work of decoding and displaying HD video.

Further out on the technological horizon, Via, the maker of the C7 processor that Hewlett-Packard uses in its Mini-Note 2133 netbook, is redesigning the C7 as a dual-core processor. Called the Via Nano, the processor will likely be available late this year or in early 2010. Its design will likely have something that Intel and AMD aren't offering in this class of processors: full hardware encryption of data for the security-conscious among us.

There's a dark side to this generation of more powerful small notebooks: The new processors will use between 6 and 8 watts of power, about double the level of today's systems. "That cuts into battery life," says Gartner's Kleynhans. "The juice has to come from somewhere."

More aggressive power management could compensate for some of this power shortfall, but it could also require bigger (and heavier) batteries or shorter battery life, potentially defeating the whole idea of a netbook.

Rather than producing cookie-cutter designs that look and act alike, each manufacturer will be forced to make its own decisions and compromises on power, producing a wide variety of netbooks over the next two years. Look for the first high-powered netbooks this summer.

Solid-state storage
The mechanical hard drive that stores data on tiny magnetic dots on a spinning disk is increasingly looking like a relic of the past. Flash memory solid-state drives use less power than conventional hard drives, can read and write data faster, and are nearly indestructible.

"Flash is the future of computing," says Brian Beard, flash product marketing manager at Samsung, which is, according to Beard, the world's largest maker of these memory chips. By 2012, he says, solid-state drives (SSD) could account for as much as 30 percent of the mobile storage market, with sales of about 10 million flash drives.

The problem is that the first generation of SSD software for reading and writing data merely mimicked hard drives, speeding up notebooks only a little. Hard drives work best when data is kept close together; if data gets fragmented, it requires precious milliseconds to be located. SSDs, on other hand, are so fast that proximity of data doesn't matter. In fact, you want to spread the data out so that all memory cells get roughly equal use and don't wear out.

"The new flash drives will double the performance of older SSDs," explains Samsung's Beard. "It'll be like having the equivalent of a 15,000-rpm hard drive in your notebook."

But don't count out the venerable hard drive just yet -- drive makers are augmenting traditional drives with several gigabytes of flash memory. "Hybrid drives make the most of flash memory," says Joni Clark, product manager at Seagate Technology. "They're nearly as fast as pure flash but are much cheaper." While an SSD can cost five to 10 times as much as a traditional hard drive, a hybrid adds only about $10.

Rather than storing everything in expensive flash memory, these hybrid drives will keep the most-used data close at hand in flash and everything else on a traditional magnetic disk. Hybrids with up to 256MB of cache onboard are available today and can boost performance by about 30 percent, according to Clark. This will seem like small change in a year or two. Seagate plans to bring out a 4GB hybrid later this year, and 15GB hybrids are on the horizon.

Beyond that, a new technology could transform the way data is stored on hard drives, bringing on the terabyte era. It might be optimistic for the time frame of this story, but heat-assisted magnetic recording (HAMR) could breathe new life into hard drives. The idea is to use a powerful laser along with the drive's traditional magnetic read-write heads to raise a drive's data density and performance.

Either way, it looks like in 2010 we'll have terabyte notebook drives, but we'll have to decide between rotating media hybrids and pure solid-state flash drives.

Better batteries
The next two years hold a lot in store for lithium batteries, which power everything from music players and cell phones to notebooks and cameras. The first big step forward will happen later this year, with the advent of power cells that don't wear out after a couple years of use.

Every lithium battery is basically a small chemical factory that works by trading the chemical energy stored in lithium compounds for electrical energy that powers the system. When it runs out of power, you charge the battery to replenish its supply of chemical energy. This repeated charge-discharge cycle creates layers of oxyhydroxide on the all-important carbon anode where the battery's electricity is collected, choking the cells to death.

Cleaning up a battery's act with an anode of pure carbon helps prevent the creation of these power-sapping layers and prolongs battery life. According to Christina Lampe-Onnerud, CEO of battery maker Boston Power, its Sonata battery design lasts for more than 1,400 charge cycles -- three to four times what conventional batteries are capable of. This translates into four years of daily recharges.

Plus, according to the company, the Sonata can be charged to 40 percent of its capacity in 10 minutes and 80 percent in 30 minutes. "The battery can get a quick charge at the airport or waiting for an appointment," says Lampe-Onnerud. "In other words, charge the way you work."

HP plans to offer Boston Power's batteries later this year under the Enviro brand. The batteries are the same size and weight as traditional notebook batteries but will carry a three-year warranty at a time when most batteries are guaranteed for either 90 days or a year.

How long batteries can hold a charge will take a big step forward over the next two years as well. Yi Cui, assistant professor of materials science at Stanford University, has been making battery anodes out of silicon nanowires instead of carbon. Thinner than a human hair, the nanowires last longer and are more efficient than carbon.

"Batteries never run long enough and go dead when you least expect it. My goal is a full-day battery," says Cui. He says he's almost there with test cells that run in the lab for nearly twice as long as conventional batteries. If all goes well, his revolutionary battery could become available in late 2010.

By 2010, mobile power may not even require a battery. As odd as that sounds, notebooks and other devices could be powered by fuel cells that convert methanol into electricity. A totally different technology than batteries, fuel cells convert a hydrogen-containing fuel into electricity and leave behind only water and carbon dioxide.

Several notebook makers have been hard at work for years refining fuel-cell prototype notebooks, and Panasonic appears to be close to a breakthrough. The company's fuel cell has a projected life span of 10 years and is roughly the size and weight of a traditional battery pack, but it can run for 20 hours on about 5 oz. of methanol.

The best part is that there's no bulky AC adapter to lug around. Plus, when the notebook is out of power, forget about looking around for the AC outlet -- just insert a new fuel tank, and the machine is ready for another 20 hours.

Online everywhere
Imagine having access to about 3MBps of wireless data no matter where you are, and you get an idea of the potential of 4G. It'll not only allow you to download huge presentations, play videos without a hiccup and even do mobile videoconferences, but do several of them at once.

"WiMax is a big win for business," explains Daryl Schoolar, a senior analyst at Scottsdale, Ariz.-based In-Stat. "You'll be able to connect and work on the road as if you were in the office. This technology works, but the challenge is in coverage."

Actually, 4G wireless communications technology has already arrived -- but only if you live or work in Baltimore or Portland, Ore. That's because these cities are the first two places in the U.S. to have service from Clearwire's Clear WiMax wireless network. At the end of 2008, Clearwire took over Xohm's WiMax operation, and it has received investments of $3 billion from tech giants such as Sprint, Intel, Google, and others to build the network. It may sound like an enormous pile of cash, but according to Schoolar, it will take at least $5 billion to create a national WiMax network.

"We're close to operations in dozens of other markets," claims Benjamin Wolff, Clearwire's CEO. "It won't happen overnight, but WiMax will happen." This year should bring service to Atlanta, Boston, Chicago, Dallas, Philadelphia, and Las Vegas. Wolff says Clearwire's goal is to be able to reach where 80 million people live or work by the start of 2010. By the end of 2010, the network could reach 140 million people.

WiMax may be in the lead in 4G communications, but there's a global competitor on the horizon: Long Term Evolution, or LTE, which offers slightly higher theoretical performance. In the United States, Verizon, T-Mobile, and AT&T are behind LTE, and the technology is being championed by most of the world's GSM and GPRS networks.

"LTE is the network of choice for global carriers," explains Schoolar, "because it is an upgrade of their present technology. This makes it easier to deploy." Look for LTE to become mainstream in most metropolitan areas of Europe and Asia next year. While each network has its own plans and rollout schedule, LTE trials and tests are expected to begin in 2009, with commercial operations possibly starting in 2010. TeliaSonera, Scandinavia's largest mobile phone operator, should be the first with LTE operation in Oslo, late this year or early next.

T-Mobile, which is owned by Deutsche Telekom, has already held LTE trials in Germany but hasn't talked about when it intends to introduce the technology to the United States. Verizon will be setting up trials and test markets later this year and plans a rollout by the end of the year or in early 2010. Meanwhile, AT&T plans to stick with its present HSDPA infrastructure until the end of 2010, when it will start building a 4G network.

The eventual choice for consumers will not be an easy one: Either get WiMax when it comes to your area but sacrifice using it when you travel internationally, or wait a year or two -- or more -- for LTE.

Smarter smartphones
They may not get much smaller, but smartphones will get smarter over the next two years.

For example, anyone who's been frustrated by the iPhone's lack of a "real" keyboard will love the phone screens coming over the next couple of years. While the current thumb keyboard won't be an endangered species, look for new phone designs that put the emphasis on touch.

The key to making this work is providing positive feedback so that the finger feels something to confirm its action. The BlackBerry Storm and Samsung's Anycall use sound and vibrations to fake the feedback, but they'll pale on comparison to the haptic screens that are on the way.

This idea is not as far out as it might first seem. For example, Nokia recently applied for a patent for its Haptikos Tactile Touch Screen that details a system with a thin, flexible film that goes over a phone's display. Underneath is an array of millions of tiny rods that lift slightly above the screen's surface when a voltage is applied to create anything from a switch to a slider volume control.

Because the rods are electrically connected, they can be tuned to give way quickly for a keypad or slowly for a volume switch. They also can sense pressure, making them very efficient switches that can be arranged anywhere on the screen.

Independent South Korean industrial designer Lukas Koh is joining the party with his futuristic Haptic Phone design. This design has a flexible screen that changes in relation to what you're doing. The interface can go beyond showing just images to actually creating physical buttons on the screen's surface. In other words, buttons rise out of the screen's surface slightly for numbers when dialing, a keyboard when typing or icons when choosing what to do. When you touch them, they depress just like real switches or keys.

Other new technologies will include better phone cameras. This spring, Sony Ericsson will start production on a camera module that will be able to snap 12.3-megapixel images. On a par with point-and-shoot cameras, the Exmor IMX060PQ cell phone camera module can capture ultrasharp 4,040-by-3,032 pixel images, as well as full 1080p HD video. No bigger than a thumbnail, the camera is also the smallest around. Meanwhile, rumor has it that Samsung will announce a 12-megapixel camera phone at the World Mobile Congress later this month.

Sony is also working on a 20-megapixel module for the next generation of photo-ready handsets that should, according to the company, be available to manufacturers sometime in 2010. In fact, Ericsson has stated publicly that by 2012, it wants to have a 20-megapixel camera phone on the market that would snap stills as well as do full HD video and connect to a 100Mbps wireless network.

Conclusions
Regardless of whether these scenarios come to pass, one thing is for certain: Life on the road will get easier and more fulfilling. It starts with longer-lasting notebooks and netbooks that are powerful enough to get the job done, and a new generation of hard drives that dole out data much quicker. When it's time to download that key file or presentation, 4G networks will be there along with incredibly powerful mobile phones. It seems the hardest thing to do in 2010 might be hiding from work on the road.

Computerworld is an InfoWorld affiliate.

This story, "Mobile tech 2010: Trends to change our lives" was originally published by Computerworld.

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