Archived Viewpoints





About This Technology

Portable electronic devices are among the most important technologies of the past decade and arguably among the most influential of the past century. Any electronic device that people can carry is portable, but the greatest interest centers on battery-powered gear that people can operate on the go. Many stakeholders are preoccupied with smartphones and tablets, but interest is also increasing in wearable devices such as smartwatches, virtual-reality headsets, and activity monitors for users who embrace the "quantified self" concept. After industry-attained milestones such as the first laptop PCs in the 1980s, early tablets in the 1990s, and smartphones in the 2000s, the landscape shifted during 2007–08, when the current Apple-versus-Android competition emerged. Smartphones—and, since 2010, multitouch tablets—made it possible for users to interact with devices in qualitatively different ways than in the past: in a broad variety of geographic locations and social contexts, constantly rather than episodically, and during spontaneous sessions on an instant's notice rather than after waiting for bootup.

Smartphones also began to cannibalize the functionality of other portable electronic devices. Sales of stand-alone music and video players, digital still and video cameras, handheld game systems, and portable GPS navigation units have all seen their sales fall as smartphones duplicate their functionality. Similarly, tablets have eroded expectations for sales of dedicated e-book readers. Yet a new crop of portables—wearable electronics—making substantial market headway. Fitness bands, smartwatches, smart jewelry, health monitors, lifelogging cameras, and virtual- and augmented-reality headsets offset the declining popularity of legacy portable platforms. In contrast to music players, cameras, and other previous-generation technologies, wearable devices need not compete with smartphones. They use smartphones to extend their capabilities or are in use to extend the capabilities of smartphones. Fitness bands and activity monitors offload some functionality to smartphones via Bluetooth connections, reducing weight and price and enabling a smartphone to serve as user interface. Smartwatches are increasingly "second screens" for smartphones, allowing users to read text messages and alerts and see the identity of incoming callers, without touching their phones. Wearables, in other words, are not eroding smartphones' central importance to users; they are reinforcing it. The result is a portable-electronics-device ecosystem in which the smartphone is the apex predator, eliminating competitors and reinforcing its dominance with the aid of symbiotic devices. At the same time, many diverse vertical-market portables continue to pervade industry and military organizations, and manufacturers produce abundant niche-market portable offerings such as pocket-size video projectors, wireless boomboxes, and even smart dog collars.

Portable electronic devices will likely continue to disrupt business and social trends. Despite the relative maturity of cell-phone, portable-game, and other markets, ongoing developments drive the need to monitor potential disruptions and their implications for the future. Designers, manufacturers, and users alike will be grappling in the coming years with a new set of technologies that could be as radically transformative as those of the previous decade. Bendable or foldable screens could allow for devices with entirely new form factors. Efforts to bring broadband wireless access to the several billion people in rural, remote, and poor parts of the world will generate demands for transformative designs and may accompany major changes in how people connect, such as by use of optical communications, television white-space frequencies, airborne communications platforms, and mesh networks. Radically new energy technologies such as fuel cells, energy harvesting, energy-saving sensor hubs, and improved energy-management software may yield devices that can run for days or weeks without recharging. Sensors will fall in price and increase in sensitivity, expanding the ability of portables to monitor our vital signs, sense our moods, and warn us of threats; as they move into clothing, shoes, and other everyday objects, they'll expand the definition of wearable computing devices. Finally, speech recognition and "anticipatory-computing" systems that deliver information in contextually sensitive ways could make interactions with portable devices more informal, social, and naturalistic. R&D planners, business developers, government organizations, and others need to prepare for the range of possible outcomes and their implications to set timely research agendas, select appropriate partners, and understand the type of future that may unfold as portable-electronics developments progress through the pipeline.