Smartphones have gotten so advanced today that it can almost be hard to tell the difference between the top options. That’s not to say you’d literally mix up an iPhone and its Samsung counterpart — but there aren’t too many defining features that really set one apart from another at this point.
Programming Zen’s 19 gadgets article last summer mentioned the idea of going back and forth between Android and Apple devices; that’s only possible because to a lot of people there just isn’t much of a difference anymore.
It may be that things will continue this way for a while. On the other hand, though, the increasingly evident similarity between leading smartphones might also spark some fairly major innovations in the near future. As Apple and Samsung look to set themselves apart from one another, that is, some big changes could be on the horizon.
It’s for that reason we’re exploring a few specific hardware tech innovations that could bring about significant smartphone changes.
1. Stretching Screens
One major innovation that we’ve actually seen already is the advent of smartphone screens that can bend and fold. These have recently been unveiled by Samsung, and despite somewhat mixed reviews, they may spark a fresh arms race in design.
That’s what makes rumors of stretchable phone screens so interesting. Last year news emerged that LG has invented such a screen, as well as a new phone casing that would allow for stretching in multiple directions for various purposes.
It’s unclear if or when this tech will be put to use in mainstream smartphones — but one could imagine all kinds of interesting new functions coming about as a result of a stretchable screen.
2. Adaptable PCBs
If phones do in fact take on new forms and physical capabilities — folding, bending, stretching and so on — one overlooked challenge is how to build internal electronics that can handle the changes. Fortunately, design for the printed circuit boards and processors that power the bulk of smartphone activity is already advancing in fairly extraordinary ways.
Modern design software for PCBs can be customized for numerous purposes. These include the building of compact or even flexible circuit boards, which can be more useful in unorthodox devices. Brand new designs may have to be made if indeed smartphones start to bend and stretch — but the technology is certainly within our grasp, if not already available.
3. Underwater Screens
It’s kind of amazing how quickly we got used to the idea of water-resistant mobile phones. Gone are the days, with the latest smartphones at least, of worrying about damage from heavy rain or a light splash; now, we can drop our phones into swimming pools and bathtubs and they’re generally fine!
However, that doesn’t mean they’re functional in water just yet, and that’s what may change in the near future. It was actually rumored last year that the iPhone 11’s display would work underwater, meaning the screen would actually maintain its interactive quality even when covered in water. That proved not to be the case when the iPhone 11 range was released, but the rumor is still out there.
We may see displays of this kind before long.
4. Airborne Charging
We may soon see a whole new technology enabling more convenient charging as well. By now many smartphone users are already taking advantage of wireless charging. Soon, though, that idea might be replaced by airborne charging — battery power drifting through the air into smartphones just as easily as WiFi.
This technology actually exists and has, surprisingly quietly, for a few years now. For it to be perfected and applied to consumer mobile devices will likely take a little more time. But don’t be surprised if you start hearing about Apple, Samsung, and others exploring the idea of airborne charging.
Of course, there are other areas of innovation that are more software-based (AI, augmented reality, etc.) and those are exciting too. But in this article, we focused on hardware changes that we are likely to see emerge in mobile devices within the next 5 years.
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