Archived Viewpoints

About This Technology

Cell phones and mobile services are simply part of the fabric of people's lives in the developed world—and increasingly so in emerging economies. Mobile-communications technologies have already greatly transformed the way we work, play, and relate to one another. Roughly two-thirds of the world's population uses at least one mobile phone, with about half of mobile-communications users owning a smartphone. The mobile industry is currently undergoing a transition to fourth-generation technology, which is not yet available to the majority of users worldwide. Meanwhile, billions of people make use of smartphones, mobile apps, high-data-rate connections, and new forms of social interaction that generate a steady stream of news and commentary. For many of these people, mobile devices have become highly available channels for just-in-time information access, work-anywhere productivity, find-anything shopping, pay-anywhere transactions, real-time logistics advice, and other transformative offerings.

People often use the word mobile to refer to typical cell-phone services that enable users to remain connected wirelessly to a network even in motion at high speeds. Much interest focuses on the competition among smartphone operating systems and the emergence of new must-have cloud services. Yet Wi-Fi has become increasingly important for containing the price of data services and industry's costs for supporting increased data traffic on congested mobile networks. Additional wireless technologies—especially Bluetooth and near-field communication—are facilitating new waves of innovations for wearable devices, mobile transactions, and connected everyday objects. In some sense, mobile phones have become universal remote controls for managing everyday life.

Now that the world has experienced several decades of mobile-services developments, what do technology road maps have in store, and what new applications and services will emerge? Advanced research in 5G networking aims toward dramatic increases in capacity, bandwidth, and coverage of networks. Such improvements aim to accommodate many wirelessly connected devices per person, eliminate network congestion at peak times, and accelerate creation of new applications. Technologies under development include repurposing of former TV-broadcasting frequencies, energy-efficient multicasting of popular content to many people at once, and support for hundreds of billions of devices that may one day constitute the Internet of Things. Smartphones also promise to improve their interoperability with existing electronics, becoming remote controls for TVs, energy appliances, and security systems. Question-answering apps such as Apple's Siri, Microsoft's Cortana, and Google Assistant promise to evolve into conversational interfaces that interpret vague requests and ask users for clarification. And many developers see a future that is rich with wearable health sensors, smart wristwatches, and head-mounted augmented-reality displays that will allow users to multitask while standing and walking and leave their hands free to use for diverse tasks.