What's Holding Back the Mobile Revolution?

No, it’s not rare metals or obscure technologies. It’s bandwidth and batteries!

Have you ever stopped to consider just how primitive the mobile-phone using experience was just 10 years ago?

A decade isn’t a very long time. Just ten years ago, we already had Web 2.0 sites, HDTVs and blogging. But our phones were rudimentary, absolutely nothing like what we have now.

I don’t know about you, but my phone at the time was a long, grey thing with rubberized keypad buttons and a tiny screen with a pull-out antenna. The screen was a bluish-monochome with blocky characters. “Games,” which were sold by the carrier, were mostly text-based trivia games.

Then, partway through the year, I upgraded to the new hotness: the Handspring Treo. It had “apps,” a bigger screen (albeit still monochrome and low-rez) and with PDA functionality built in!

Now, just ten short years later, our phones are something from another world. We all become jaded, but marvel for a moment at how far they’ve come.

Every component in our cell phones, it seems, follows its own version of “Moore’s Law,” Gordon Moore’s observation that the number of transistors on chips tends to double every two years. Cameras, GPS, motion sensors, Internet connectivity and, above all, incredible, high quality touch screens get better so fast that it boggles the mind.

This exponential improvement in electronics was supposed to usher in a utopia of mobile computing. And, in a way, it has.

We can do a long list of things that people weren’t even predicting 10 years ago. But what’s interesting is that the things people were predicting aren’t coming about.

Connect cheaply from anywhere?

Ten years ago, every forward-thinking city government in America was talking about blanketing their city with free WiFi. We were supposed to be able to connect from anywhere, free, which would drive down the cost of mobile computing.

Instead, WiFi is provided only sporadically and mostly by private companies like Starbucks. Most of us rely upon our mobile broadband connections, which are incredibly expensive, and subject to new caps and tiered plans for paying more when you use more data. (If you don’t think mobile broadband is expensive, try calculating total data costs over the life of your two-year contract.)

I’m reminded of the now-failed dream of free, ubiquitous municipal WiFi now that the UK carriers are scrambling to provide free WiFi in London during the Olympics.

By 2012, this kind of coverage was supposed to be a standard service provided by every city everywhere.

And, come to think of it, cities were supposed to have much faster landline connections, too. We’ll all be reminded of that fact this week when Google reveals more details about its Kansas City fiber rollout, which will bring ultra high-speed wireless to the city, clocking in at the kinds of speeds we were all supposed to have by now.

Now, people are thrilled when someone they know has a mobile hotspot, which takes a mobile broadband connection either on a phone or on a dedicated device with a SIM card that offers that bandwidth to a handful of nearby devices as a WiFi connection.

It’s a sad state of affairs that we’ve all lowered our standards from “super-fast free Wi-Fi everywhere” to “I hope someone else is paying through the nose for the hotspot feature so I can leach off their slow connection.”

It wasn’t supposed to be like this.

Use phones for weeks without recharging?

And what about the mobile battery crisis? The various Moore’s Laws that brought us the incredible screens on our phones, and the constant location awareness, social check-ins and app wonders are also sucking juice like there’s no tomorrow.

Many of the huge gains in miniaturization technology are now going not to make our phones smaller, lighter and thinner, but to make more room for the growing batteries required to power everything else.

It’s getting to the point where every new phone, tablet and now even ultraportables like the new Apple MacBook are mostly battery, with the electronics crammed into the corners and flattened against the inside surfaces of our devices.

Meanwhile, each new generation of phone suffers from ever-reduced battery life.

By 2012, we were supposed to have super batteries that powered our gadgets for days. And in truth, batteries are improving rapidly -- but lagging behind the power-hogging features elsewhere in the phones.

And what about the many mitigating technologies that were supposed to help? Where are the solar-powered phones? Where are the ubiquitous wireless charging stations? Where are the shoes that were supposed to generate energy while we walk around, then transfer the power to our phones?

Don’t get me wrong. I love today’s phones. Compared to phones ten years ago, they’re massively better in every way.

It’s just odd that with all the technology and all the advancements, the biggest constraints are things as banal and seemingly trivial as bandwidth and batteries.

Tags: Android, mobile, iPhone, cell phone

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