What's next for smartphones? Perhaps a cloak of invisibility. Apple, Samsung and Google are doing their best to make the hardware go away.
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If you've ever worn glasses, at one time or another you wondered where they were, only to realize you were wearing them all along. That is the magic of Google Glass, a wearable computing project from Google.
If you're a Star Trek fan, you know crew members on the starship Enterprise can ask a question aloud, and an answer comes seemingly out of nowhere. That is the magic of Apple's Siri and other voice-enabled artificial intelligence engines.
If you've watched the movie "Minority Report," you saw Tom Cruise wave his hands and manipulate floating images. That is the magic of an infrared gesture-detection sensor, a new feature found in the Samsung Galaxy S4 announced last week.
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Each of these scenarios provides a glimpse of the future, where the computer is omnipresent yet invisible. We're not there, of course, but this is where we're headed. Are you using an Apple iPad? Samsung Galaxy smartphone? It won't matter, because the branded hardware-the technology doing the heavy lifting-will eventually fade into the background.
Only human senses will remain: sight, sound and touch colliding with a virtual reality.
Today, so much is made of hardware specs. What's the chip speed? How big is the screen? What's the resolution? How long is the battery life? All good questions, to be sure. But the Galaxy S4, the newest entry in the smartphone market, shows hardware reaching a high water mark. It's getting gimmicky, and it's becoming increasingly unclear where hardware, as we know it, goes from here.
"What more is to be done on the smartphone form factor?" asks Aberdeen Group research director Andrew Borg.
It's time to re-think hardware, Borg says, whereby innovation happens whenever the user and the experience come closer together without technology in the way. To be fair, mobile giants Apple, Google and Samsung are making strides to hide the hardware.
One of the features that most impressed Borg at the Galaxy S4 unveiling last week was the smartphone being used in a car. When the Galaxy S4 is plugged into a cradle designed for a car, the screen's fonts get larger and the brightness adjusts for the driver. The smartphone defaults to the text-to-speech converter so that messages can be heard, not necessarily read.
Most importantly, the gesture-detection sensor allows the driver to make motions with his free hand in front of the screen to change music, turn on apps, accept phone calls, and perform all sorts of functions-all without taking his eyes off the road. The driver becomes like a magician waving a wand and making things happen, while the hardware remains quite literally unseen.
"Mobility is not defined by the device, software application or network access, but by the user and their context - that's ultimately what mobility is about," Borg says, adding, "This way, devices will eventually become virtualized or transparent. But we're not there yet."
Apple has taken a slightly different tact, placing its bet on Siri. The thinking goes that people will talk to mobile computers more than tap on screens. Much like Google Maps, Siri is getting better every day. It is learning and improving on its ability to understand questions and respond.
Case in point: Siri saw a marked improvement with iOS 6 released late last year, particularly with local sports questions, and again with iOS 6.1 earlier this year with movie ticket sales. Last summer, Apple CEO Tim Cook famously said, "We're doubling down" on Siri.
Meanwhile, Google envisions Google Glass replacing smartphones in our pockets. Prototypes of the smart glasses are popping up, and there's speculation that they'll debut next year.
Last month, Google co-founder Sergey Brin called smartphones "emasculating," with people constantly looking down and rubbing a piece of glass. Instead, Google Glass eliminates the rectangular distraction. "When we started Google 15 years ago, my vision was that information would come to you as you need it," he said, according to a TED blog.
On a CBS "60 Minutes" episode that aired last weekend, Twitter creator Jack Dorsey also talked about technology as a vanishing enabler. When someone Tweets a simple message, for instance, all they know is that people are going to see it.
"When people come to Twitter and want to express something in the world, the technology fades away," Dorsey says.
Never mind the hardware working behind the scenes to make the connections. Never mind the lines of code bringing order and logic to the social network. Never mind the Devil in the details.
Tom Kaneshige covers Apple, BYOD and Consumerization of IT for CIO.com. Follow Tom on Twitter @kaneshige. Follow everything from CIO.com on Twitter @CIOonline, Facebook, Google + and LinkedIn. Email Tom at firstname.lastname@example.org
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