“Smartphone” is rapidly becoming an archaic distinction. What used to be a fancy, high horsepower plaything is now increasingly commonplace: last year, the Pew Research Center said that 58% of Americans owned a smartphone, and the year before that Business Insider estimated that one in five people worldwide owned one. More and more, “smartphone” is being replaced with simply “phone.” Even that distinction may soon be outdated, as ever-escalating technology is poised to move these miniature powerhouses from phone-with-bells-and-whistles status to “small computer.”
A mobile phone’s functionality could classically be described as making calls first, texting second, and offering web and computing services third. As that tertiary utility improves, it may gobble up the first two. A growing selection of messaging apps, such as WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger, circumvent the traditional texting medium, instead tapping into the internet. Voice and video services like Facetime and Google Hangout similarly offer web-based communication that slips around old-fashioned phone calls. The primary hurdle standing between mobile computing and full-on supplantation of conventional telecommunications is broader, more consistent access to the internet, and that may change soon. With the FCC’s net neutrality ruling, small communities will have more autonomy in deciding how they handle internet service, and more web providers will get access to utility infrastructure (like phone poles). Tesla is working on a satellite system to increase global web access, and Google has a similar idea involving a network of solar-powered balloons. More options and more competition will lead to greater innovation and accessibility.
But if phones are really to become pocket-sized computers, they’ll also need more brute strength and longevity than they currently offer. Israeli startup “Storedot” has unveiled prototype battery tech that would charge a phone from drained to full in less than a minute, and hopes to have it available in 2017. Micron and Intel have announced that a joint project has yielded new solid-state hard drives capable of unprecedented storage capacity; current smartphones’ storage of 128GB could be dwarfed by a whopping 768GB. Between stronger and more prevalent internet access and a mountainful of muscle on the horizon, it might be only a few years before the word “phone” starts to sound about as current as “rotary.”