At Mobile World Congress (MWC) in Barcelona, Computer Weekly sat down with Kevin Curran, computer science lecturer at the University of Ulster and a senior member of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) to explore some of the trends shaping the future of this industry.
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With more than 800 published works to his name, Curran is a noted expert in networking technology, as well as group leader for the Ambient Intelligence Research Group, a body that explores the future of the connected world, human-centric technology and the internet of things (IoT).
As a more independent observer and bystander at MWC, Curran is free to talk more candidly than the vast array of exhibitors at the world’s largest mobility trade fair, free of PR minders and corporate responsibility. There is no doubt some of his views diverge from the mobile party line.
1. Smartphone makers are in deep trouble
MWC was notable this year for a lack of momentous announcements or major advances in smartphone technology, and a feeling that things were just ticking over.
“Obviously nobody can see what’s around the corner,” says Curran, “but everything just seems more incremental than the year before. Smartphones are reaching a plateau in terms of size, in terms of sensor and pixel resolution, so the manufacturers are desperately trying to distinguish themselves in smaller ways.”
One trend Curran does pick up on is that the Samsung Galaxy S6 – one of the headline smartphone launches at MWC – did not have as much bloatware as its parents and grandparents, suggesting a move away from the walled garden approach to mobile phone operating systems.
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“People are becoming savvy to that,” he says. “Consumers want the phone to be as neat as possible, out of the box, really, without all the add-ons.”
This indicates to Curran that the smartphone market has hit saturation point and, faced with the prospect of becoming as much a commodity as the bland, white, desktop PC boxes from the turn of the century, manufacturers have to be seen to be doing something about it. The trouble is that nobody knows what yet.
“We’ve seen how even Samsung has struggled with its phones,” he says. “Apple is riding high, the number two smartphone maker is Samsung, but its sales are dropping – the S5 sold 40 million units fewer than the S3. There’s a lot riding on the S6, but just because it’s a flagship phone and gets all the press attention, that doesn’t mean it’s a best-seller.”
Curran adds: “It is so hard to distinguish yourself in this market. If you walk onto most of the stands here, they all look similar. When did you last get excited about a phone? For most people, upgrading is just a case of upgrading from a cracked screen to an uncracked screen.”
2. Wearables will be huge but fitness is a gimmick
In the rush to stand out from the bland crowd, the opportunity for smartphone suppliers such as Samsung – and even Apple, which has just launched its first wristwatch product – will be in wearables, Curran believes.
“People only really have one phone, but when it comes to wearables, you have more chances to sell a product because in the future, people will have a lot more wearables on them, whether watches or fitness trackers, or even smart clothing,” he says. “There will be a massive opportunity to sell more products to us.”
The big hurdle will be battery life, says Curran, and with early reports of the Apple Watch suggesting that this has not yet been overcome, wearables will remain notification tools, rather than phone replacements.
But if you think it’s all going to be about fitness products and the quantified self, then think on, says Curran, who describes fitness as a gimmick.
He suggests the manufacturers are missing a lot because they all seem to have concentrated on fitness. “I feel that fitness and premium products don’t really match – there’s a lot of sweat and a lot of rigorous activity,” he says.
It’s gimmicky and it never translates into something that’s desirable and reaches a wider market, so I really do doubt the early emphasis on fitness
“As a guy who runs six days a week, if you’re into running, you just kind of know what to do, your distance, your time, and they have all these features, but it’s gimmicky and it never translates into something that’s desirable and reaches a wider market, so I really do doubt the early emphasis on fitness.”
The logical question to ask at this point is where wearables should be pitched. In Curran’s view, it’s around health, physical security and mobile payments, using the smartphone as a hub for connectivity back to the network.
With mobile payments a big theme at MWC 2015, Curran says we are rapidly approaching a tipping point where the ability to make payments via a smartphone or wearable, or combination of the two, will go mainstream.
“This is the year that makes or breaks it,” he says. “It’s going to happen – it’s just a case of who’s going to be the main player.
“The same with crypto-currency – that will happen, whether it’s bitcoin or not. It’s a no-brainer. There has to be an e-currency; there’s an online world that we’re all moving to to make payments, so it makes sense.”
3. Our ideas about what 5G will be are way off the mark
Wearable or smartphone, the mobile device of the future will need network connectivity. With 4G roll-out now well advanced in many mature markets and attention turning to 5G research and standards, what will the next generation mobile network look like?
Actually, not much different, says Curran. He reckons progress towards the next mobile standard will be less of a quantum leap, and more of a series of steps towards faster speed.
Curran theorises a future where 5G ends up being a community resource, much like how BT has expanded public Wi-Fi in the UK by slicing unused capacity from consumer customer routers.
In this scenario, 5G will work by sharing bandwidth over fixed routers and small cells. It will still be more powerful and much faster than 4G, but when you walk down the street in 2025, your phone may connect to something more like a wireless broadband network, rather than the current network of mobile phone masts. Phones will have multiple chips, and multiple antennae to handle this, suggests Curran.
At the moment, 5G is just a series of proprietary trials conducted by industry by saturating a small area with connectivity, he says. A broad consensus is still at least five years off.
“There will be consensus, but again, who is to stop someone coming along next year, an operator trying to get ahead of the curve because their sales are dropping, and just branding something as 5G?” he says. “There’s no copyright on the term.”
4. Autonomous cars are here but driverless is further off
Autonomous cars were the stars at MWC 2015, with a multitude of suppliers, from Ericsson to Qualcomm, getting in on the act, and auto maker Ford even having its own stand, which it used to launch two new electric bicycles and a journey-planning app.
The problem is what happens when truly autonomous cars hit the roads and there are still rubbish humans
With the head of Renault-Nissan using a keynote address at the show to announce plans to launch an autonomous car capable of controlling its own movements in traffic jams, in 2016, the drive towards driverless is now in top gear.
“We will see it,” says Curran. “Google is the driver there, having driven millions of miles with no accidents. The Google car is difficult, and they are cheating a little bit because they have pre-mapped the routes and have control of the test space.
“The problem is what happens when truly autonomous cars hit the roads and there are still rubbish humans. There’s a lot to think about, but driverless is still a little way down the road.”
Like the march towards 5G, the move towards driverless will take a lot of incremental steps. After dealing with low-speed, stop-start driving in heavy traffic will come motorway driving, and later still, urban driving, where a greater variation in speeds and hazards will bring more emphasis on safety and tighter regulation.
“Right now, all the car-makers are just hanging in there to see what everybody else is doing,” says Curran. “These are proprietary standards, so regulation will be difficult.”
Car-to-car communications is the biggest application at the moment, says Curran, and the technology for cars to be able to tell each other their speed and distance apart is close to commercialisation.
“Driver assistance is where it will happen first,” he says. “It’s not a big step, but it will make a big difference.”
5. Drones will take off
Drones will be one of the biggest changes to hit the technology world since mobile phones, says Curran, who describes them as one of the most exciting technologies he has seen in the past 20 years.
Up to now, drones have made the news either when someone flies one too close to an airport, or when someone uses one as a gimmick in a publicity stunt.
The biggest such stunt in the past 12 months was the Amazon drone delivery system, which first saw the light of day in July 2014.
People will be happy to allow drones to land on the lawn, detach the parcel, send it back up, and keep the kids well back
“It really was a gimmick but, oddly enough, I do think this will happen,” says Curran. “I can see drone deliveries in urban spaces.”
People are doubtful of this for now, says Curran, but he reckons the rules of society will change much as they did when the first automobiles arrived.
“People have said that because drone deliveries are out of the ordinary, they will never happen,” says Curran. “But when the tech is rolled out and people see their friends use it, they will be happy to allow drones to land on the lawn, detach the parcel, send it back up, and keep the kids well back. I honestly think it will happen.”
He predicts that the other big application for drones will be in healthcare, where some pilot studies have already been conducted with drone ambulances delivering supplies such as defibrillator equipment to the scene of an accident – although drones probably won’t be airlifting crash victims to hospital.
“A drone can, in many cases, fly more quickly and cheaply than a helicopter, and with a camera on board, the paramedics on scene can talk to the hospital,” he says.
Regulation will be the biggest challenge for drone technology, says Curran. Aviation authorities will have to take a leading role but, fortunately, no-fly zones around buildings, airports and other sensitive sites are already enforceable through drone firmware updates.
“Most people who are into drones adhere to safety and proper radio frequency use,” he adds. “The skies will become busier than we ever imagined in the very near future.”