I was reading about the new raft of mobile phones with higher quality cameras built-in recently and how they are a real threat to traditional digital camera makers. There have also been plenty of people pointing out that no, these new phones do not spell the end of stand-alone digital cameras as a consumer item. I agree, not just because the quality of the new phone/camera hybrids isn’t yet high enough to compete with ordinary cameras, nor that the size of camera phones is a distinct disadvantage (they’re too small to house features like zoom lenses and what-not but if you made them big enough to include these they’d cease to be desirable as phones). What most people aren’t looking at is the bigger picture, because these mark a shift in use. We’re referring to these devices as camera phones, or video phones, when we should be looking at them as Multi-function devices (MFDs – I used to work in IT, three letter acronyms are my bread and butter). These are the ground floor of the future, I believe.
Most phones these days come with alarms, calendars, address books, games and a few other applications. The phone side of it, the one used most often, is used mainly for voice communication or text messages. The video and picture-taking side of things are used mainly for grabbing candids when you’re out and about. The processing power of phones is increasing month on month, as is the size of integrated storage and the range of media you can store on (SD cards, Memory Sticks, etc). Some phones are being offered with MP3 players or radios built-in, those on 3G networks already offer streaming media. 3G or not, most allow you to connect to the internet directly or enable a laptop to do so.
MFDs already exist. The most obvious is perhaps the Nokia 9300 (or the 7710), but O2 (BT), Palm and many of the PDA manufacturers offer machines capable of similar tasks. WiMax and 3G promise high speed wireless connections in the near future, storage costs are coming down (and the hardware is getting smaller), screen size is getting bigger, processors more powerful. Soon the humble mobile phone will be ripe for a makeover. You see, most people carry their mobile with them everywhere, all the time (I’m notorious for not having mine with me or switched on). So if an MFD can keep my addresses (not just phone numbers, but full contact details), store events, remind me of birthdays, let me download and play games, watch movies, listen to music (either via built-in storage or downloaded), connect to the internet (directly and via a laptop), take photos, record videos, send and receive faxes and make phone calls, why not? Hell, the processing power in these devices is already capable of running word processors and spreadsheets, so why not keep a copy of work and home documents on their too? You are now completely mobile.
Need to work in a different office? No problem. The minute you walk in the building your MFD will let the local network know you’re here, so you’re colleagues and the phone system know where to reach you. Pick a desk and use the keyboard, monitor and mouse (without even taking out your MFD, but possibly plugging it in to a power source), all your documents are there, they’ll back-up to/sync with the network copies automatically. You go home, no need to fight with the kids for a PC, either use a similar set-up to the work keyboard/monitor/mouse or drop the MFD into a docking station (basically a laptop with a hole in it, possibly some extra processors to give the MFD some extra grunt) and away you go.
While on the move you can watch movies you’ve either ripped to the in-built hard disk, stream them from an online service or buy and download them. The same with music, only you can also listen to the radio and have the option to buy the currently playing track. You can watch live TV, possibly even record it to the hard disk for later watching (certainly copy from your Personal Video Recorder (PVR) at home). You can download games, play other people directly across the net or through a service similar to Xbox Live or use the wireless ability to play anyone in range (could be anyone, just search locally and ask people if they want to play). You have high-speed internet access, via the device and also through it (for laptops, bigger screens for movies, speakers for music, etc), you can take and upload photos and video instantly (for sharing things like your child’s first steps with relatives, or the time you ran into Beckham in Sainsbury’s or when one of the lads was caught snogging a moose). In-built GPS will be able to tell you where you are and give you directions when you request the locations of the nearest convenience, store or service (Where’s the nearest train station?). Hell, have a dating guide that stores your relevant details, hobbies, interests, etc and checks other MFDs while you’re roaming, exchanging electronic cards as you go or alerting you to someone who matches your criteria. For bigger applications (high-end games for example), the MFDs could be linked up and used as a multi-processor array.
Of course, easy sync up with your PC (for the moment at least, until paper-thin screens and keyboards you can carry with you appear) and excellent wireless capabilities (both for sync up and peripheral use) will be required. Wireless headsets, keyboards and monitors would be the order of the day I imagine (buy your shares in Bluetooth now). Standards will also be important to allow devices from different manufacturers and of different types to communicate seamlessly (is Bluetooth an open standard? I’m not sure, best hold off on the share buying).
All of this will be fast and easy if you have all these capabilities in one device, but try carrying a phone, a camera, a PDA, an MP3 player, a radio, a video player, a games machine, a portable hard disk, a laptop and GPS receiver all the time. That’s what the phone companies are thinking of, that and they can then say: ‘Yeah, but ours does all that, and this.’ It’s all straight-forward one-upmanship, but they’re on the right lines. Just look at how popular multi-function printers have become, we’ve got one at home that’ll scan, copy, print and fax. It doesn’t do anything exceptionally well, but it does all of them to a good standard, the same with MFDs. A dedicated camera will probably take better pictures, but you’re going to need a utility belt bigger than Batman’s to carry everything. MFDs won’t replace all of those devices, but they will mean that you have everything with you, all the time.