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Image credit: Warner Bros. Pictures

The next big thing in smartphones is uncertainty

Things are going to get weird.

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Still from the movie "Her" with actor Joaquin Phoenix using his "intelligent computer operating system." Warner Bros. Pictures

You've probably noticed something about smartphones. They haven't been exciting lately.

Chances are, your current smartphone looks and works a lot like your last one. Your next will probably seem pretty familiar, too. But there are signs that smartphones, and the ways we use them, could be about to significantly change -- even if no one can quite agree on exactly how.

From some perspectives, it's inevitable that we'd be seeing a noticeable change in smartphones by now. As venture capitalist Chris Dixon noted in a recent essay, major shifts in computing tend to occur in 10- to 15-year cycles: the home PC era throughout the '80s and early '90s, the internet era from the mid-90s into the 2000s, and the mobile era that we're currently in.

While you can point to single events that firmly established those new eras, they've each also been bookended by a more ragged edge where different technologies mixed and jockeyed for position. There was "mobile computing" before modern smartphones. Although most tend to see smartphones as an evolution of the traditional cellphone, they owe just as much to other mobile devices like personal digital assistants, pocket PCs and portable media players.

Those each did some of the things that smartphones can now do (some more than others), and it was only when smartphones were able to do enough of those tasks, with an acceptable number of trade-offs, that they went mainstream. The combination of those features -- an internet-connected mobile device with a decent camera, for instance -- then opened up a host of new possibilities that had been impossible.

If you accept the 10- to 15-year rule, that means we're about a year away from the early edge of a transition to something else. Even setting it aside, you don't have to look far to see that the tail end of the first decade of the smartphone era has some parallels to the more experimental and less certain years that preceded it.

There was some evidence on display at Mobile World Congress last month. While smartphone makers introduced plenty of the usual fare -- new phones that are slightly better than last year's -- there was also a noticeable willingness to experiment, and all the uncertainty that comes along with it.

For LG, that means changing not only the way people use smartphones but also the phones themselves. Its new modular G5 not only works with other devices but can also turn into a variety of other devices. So far, that includes fairly modest changes like a module that turns the G5 into more of a full-fledged camera and one that makes it an audiophile-grade media player. LG says that additional add-ons are in the works, though, and it's hoping other companies will diversify the range of modifications even further.

Modular components are something Google has also explored with its Project Ara smartphone, as have more DIY-oriented initiatives like Seeed's RePhone -- an open-source kit that lets you build your own smartphone or other cellular-equipped device -- something that would have seemed like a wild concept a few years ago.

HP has even revived a slightly older idea for a modular smartphone of sorts with its new Elite x3 Windows phone, which promises to replace a laptop or desktop computer when connected to a monitor and keyboard.

And, of course, everyone from Apple to Samsung has already bet on smartwatches and other wearables to one degree or another -- devices that, for the time being, are designed more to augment and complement smartphones than replace them.

The most complete vision of a different future for smartphones, however, may come from Sony.

It had some new smartphones to show off at MWC, but it got more attention for the other products it introduced. One, the Xperia Ear, is a tiny earpiece that promises to let you leave your phone in your pocket more often and instead interact with it using voice commands. Another, the Xperia Agent (still something of a concept, Sony says), is a stand-alone device that similarly lets you interact with an intelligent virtual assistant. It's a lot like Amazon's Echo but is amped up with a built-in camera and a projector for displaying information.

In a statement announcing the new devices, Sony's Hiroki Totoki said that the company wants to "change how you access information and interact with friends and family in a closer, natural and more meaningful way." He was more blunt in an interview with The Wall Street Journal, saying, "People have become too obsessed with smartphones," and that Sony effectively wants to wean people off them.

If that vision sounds a little familiar, it may be because it's a lot like the one seen in the Spike Jonze movie Her, in which the main character interacts with an artificially intelligent operating system primarily through an earpiece. The smartphone-like device in the movie is used sparingly in comparison, serving as a camera so the AI can "see," and turned to for things like looking at photos. As far as science fiction goes, that's not so farfetched, and many see something similar to it happening sooner rather than later.

A survey conducted by Ericsson ConsumerLab last year suggested that AI will be what finally ends the "screen age" and that this shift could happen in as soon as five years. "Smartphone users believe AI will take over many common activities, such as searching the net, getting travel guidance and as personal assistants," the report said, noting that "these are areas already being addressed by current generation AI interfaces in smartphones."

The survey pointed to virtual reality as another technology that could pull some tasks away from our smartphone and computer screens, and augmented reality devices like Microsoft's HoloLens and the still-mysterious Magic Leap promise to do something similar. At the same time, as with smartphones, they could also enable far more new things that aren't possible at all on regular screens.

Other developments suggest that the smartphone itself might be becoming less important than underlying software and services. The recently introduced Nextbit Robin smartphone isn't all the way there, but its cloud-based storage hints at a future in which phones are less limited by hardware constraints -- something that could accelerate when 5G networks finally become a reality.

And while Amazon's Echo devices may not seem much like smartphone alternatives at first glance, they're not so far off when you look at how people use them. Whether it's Alexa, Siri or Google Now, we're approaching a point where the measure of a device may not be the apps it can run but the intelligent agent to which it provides an interface and, by extension, the network of other devices and services that it interacts with.

According to Jonas Damon, the executive creative director of the design firm Frog, the influence of those and other technologies won't make smartphones more feature-packed and complicated devices but simpler ones.

"I'm super excited about our phones becoming simpler as our environment becomes more instrumented," he said when asked how he saw smartphones changing over the next five years.

"We've had to centralize so much technology into our phones because our environment is still largely analogue," he continued.

"In the next five years, all kinds of products and structures will get sensors, machine vision will become more ubiquitous, and machine learning will start to automate things for us. We'll be able to put our phones down and enjoy living in a heads-up, responsive environment. If phones get simpler, the devices will change as well: they will last longer because yearly hardware upgrades will become unnecessary, they will get smaller as users require less screen space, and they will become more beautiful as they become more permanent."

Tjeerd Hoek, Frog's vice president of software experience, further added, "Smartphones today are really just dumb connected tools, which often prioritize features few people want. Even when the features are great, they can require incomprehensible interactions to use."

As Hoek sees it, "Smartphones have the potential to become a proactive and intelligent assistant that users can delegate tasks to easily." He continued:

"This delegation will be underpinned by the increased diversity of sensors, and improved integration between connected devices, network analytics, processing and intelligence based on data from the connected device ecosystem. Combined with detailed contextual awareness about the user's location, past behaviors and preferences, better feedback mechanisms will allow users to direct the device as it performs autonomous tasks for them."

A lot of those bits and pieces are already here. At least some are bound to have an effect on smartphones. It's the how and the when that are still uncertain, and that period of uncertainty is where things start to get a little weird.

Already, many are pointing to smart earpieces like the Xperia Ear and an AI-driven future like the one in Her as the inevitable next step in computing. We'll still have smartphones and computers and TVs -- and maybe AR or VR -- but we'll be able to easily move from one to another with an intelligent assistant bridging the gaps among them.

Companies betting on that future will adjust their smartphones accordingly. Screens may get smaller again, sensors to make the AI more aware of your environment might become a bigger priority and seamless connectivity to other devices could become more important. But not everyone sees AI as an imminent paradigm shift.

Some companies will no doubt continue to churn out familiar-looking smartphones for years to come. But, as some recent announcements have shown, many others see the present as a time to experiment and take risks. Some may make integration with VR headsets a priority as the technology advances, others may see smartphones as a module that becomes the core driver of a range of other devices and others are no doubt working on even wilder concepts that no one sees coming.

As long as there's disagreement about how things will ultimately play out, there's going to be more diversification among smartphones than we've seen during the past decade of consensus. All of that is exciting for people who have been bored with years of iterative upgrades -- and undoubtedly a little unsettling for the smartphone makers betting their future on ideas that may not pan out.

[Images: LG G5, Google Project Ara, Sony Xperia Ear, Nextbit Robin, Amazon Echo / Alexa, Sony Xperia Ear]

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