Ben Harvey: What happens when you go 88 miles an hour…

Ben Harvey returns with his weekly Friday afternoon column – and this week he’s looking into his crystal ball and making some predictions for the future.

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Looking back through the history of mobile telephony always reminds me of those terribly clichéd film montages of time-travel; you know the ones – pages fluttering down from calendars. Seasons whirling forward at the blink of an eye, with trees squirting up from the ground and with the hands of clocks whirling around like rotorblades. It’s all happened so very, very fast. And, were I not the incredibly bright and capable young man that I am, I should be quite intimidated by the speed of such change.

To recap, we’ve gone from using cinderblock-sized walkie-talkies (useful in an area of London about the size of an urban-fox’s piss-marking territory) to the current state of play, when we’re blatting music & video files around to our friends all across the world on handsets the size of a Toffee Crisp.

However – it’s always easier to look back in time than it is to look forwards; hindsight, as we all know, is easy. This is why your history teacher at school found it so hard to impress women. It’s also why Mystic Meg never buys lottery tickets. So – I’m going to stake my reputation on the line here and make some bold predictions. Some of these are wild stabs in the dark, others have been painstakingly assembled, the bricks of logic carefully tamped with the sticky mortar of intuition. Or something.

Anyway, here we go, listed in nothing by a rough chronological order…

Handsets will get no smaller, just heavier

Ben Elton, as a stand-up comic, has a lot of faults; he’s been using the same routine for fifteen years, for starters. Dressing like he mans reception in a Job Centre doesn’t endear him to us much, either. However, in his other guise as a novelist he did once make his own prediction about the future, which is that technology can only shrink down to a certain level before you start losing your computer-keyboard down the back of your sofa cushions, or accidentally put your stereo through the washing-machine because you left it in your trousers. He’s quite right – certain technologies have to have a minimum size because, even though they could be far smaller, you’d never be able to find the bloody things.

Look at memory-sticks, which have to be at least the size of a stamp; otherwise you’d need tweezers to get them in or out of your camera. Look at iPod shuffles; miniscule things. Again, they could be far smaller but the size of the buttons on the frontage dictates a maximum size (you flick the on/off switch with your fingernail as it is). As long as human beings are using their fingers to operate technology you’ll always be constrained to a minimum size for any tech appliance. A case in point were those calculator-watches that you needed a sharp pencil to use. Classy.

Handsets are exactly the same. Even current models are forced to sprout buttons and switches on three or four of the six sides available; routing everything through a touchscreen, á la iPhone, won’t help, because, again, the fat, greasy, sausage-like digits of the average person mean that things can’t be any smaller, styli being about as popular with the general public as Michael Barrymore at a pool-cleaner convention.

One thing that manufacturers of handsets will have to keep an eye on, though, is density. Because although mobiles aren’t going to get any smaller, they’re certainly going to get heavier. Cameras will have more sophisticated lenses. Batteries will become more compact, more powerful (Fuel Cells being a subject for a future article – but in the meantime…) and speakers gain more and more clarity and ooomph. The upshot of this is that your average handset, in five or six years, will be so dense that it may as well be made out of lead.

This in turn will have side-effects – braces on men will make a sartorial comeback, since your trousers will instantly be pulled to ankle-level under the tonnage of your mobile. Women will have to have to rent Sherpas to carry their handbags, or perhaps pull them around on cute little trolleys. Also, instead of calling a hitman to whack someone that you dislike you could always just batter them to death with the phone itself.

Reducing Carbon Footprints will be important for about thirty seconds

They’ve recently started banging on about how damaging to the environment the IT industry is. And I think they’re quite right – not in terms of global-warming, or using the world’s resources to make PCs you throw away after three years, but more the damage to the water table that all the world’s IT consultants, programmers & engineers do every weekend when they get hammered & wee in inappropriate places whilst waiting for their taxis.

However, much in the same way that Saint Geldof of Bob jumps, hand in hand with Bono, onto every passing political bandwagon it must also be the case that the guns of the environmentalists will be trained, sooner or later, on the mobile industry. Admittedly, we have been treating the atmosphere to radiowave-bukakke for twenty years and, yes, egging various African civil-wars on (so that we can steal all their lovely lithium) could be seen, by unfavourable eyes, as not being in the best traditions of honour & good sportsmanship.

Anyway – when we have a thankfully brief period of biodiesel-fueled, wicker-cased handsets, don’t worry. Like all environmental fads, it will last just as long is takes everyone to become happily blasé, and then we can all revert to our ivory-clad Motorolas. You know. The ones with the seal-pup leather finish.

Integration into Everything

Cash is dying on its arse. In 2004 in the UK, for example, card purchases outweighed cash purchases for the first time in all retail sales (figures weighted to exclude cocaine & stripper-rental) and has been falling steadily ever since. Governments across the world are quietly putting the feelers out to fund studies into totally cashless economies, partly to track money-laundering & crime, and partly to stop counterfeiting, but mostly because money costs so much. Printing all those notes. Smelting all those coins. Holding all those focus-groups to decide who goes on the next £20 note (Sir Bob of Geldof, anyone…?), it’s all such a bloody expensive process. The sooner we can be rid of the folding paper-stuff and slap it all on an ethereal data carriage of some sort, the better and that, my friends, is where the phone will come in.

People talk a good game when it comes to ‘convergence”, and it does seem a bit of a far-off concept, but it’s an inevitability. For example, now that cameraphone picture-quality is now – officially – uncrap, the digital camera will increasingly be sidelined into a specialist product for photographers. The next generation of handsets & bandwidth options (including the next gen. of GPRS, whenever they decide to pull their heads out of their backsides) will bump Blackberrys (or is that Blackberries?) firmly into obscurity; you watch what happens to Blackberry unit sales when the iPhone comes out.

So; where am I going with this? What I’m saying is that, as financial transactions move more and more into a realm where they become pure data then they’re going to need a device to go with them capable of encryption tasks. And it’s not going to be all that long before we start to see respectable computing power in handsets, when you think about it. Email, internet, data storage, VOIP calls, TVOIP, probably even some bastardised ID-card nonsense, too.

…which leads us nicely onto…

Your phone will not be a phone anymore

It’s a good word, isn’t it? Fone. What is that, one and a half syllables? It’s a noun, it’s a verb, it’s everything. Everything except accurate, because it’ll be completely wrong in a very short period of time. It says that it’s a phone, not a wallet. It calling it your phone, not your node to the internet, to your email, to your own data and to the codes you need to start your car or open your front-door. It’s denoting something that’s just a telephone, not your entire world.

So, when people do start to re-name that dense, blinking lump of technological potential they’ll probably call it something crappy and generically sci-fi, like a ‘link” or a ‘slab” or a ‘unit”. If I try and stake a claim on immortality, and suggest that they call it a ‘Harvey”, do you think anyone will notice…?

…I mean, do I have to write a note to the UN, or what…?

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