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The cellphone is disappearing…

Once upon a time there was the cellphone. Over 1.5 billion phones are discarded every year, substituted by smartphones that have very little in common with a phone. Image credit: Peter Dazeley/Photographer’s Choice/Getty Images

As of February 2021 there are 3.8 billion smartphones users in the world and an additional 1 billion with a mobile phone. The number of mobile phones is rapidly dwindling (there were 2 billion of them in 2016) and we can expect to have them disappearing in (mostly the first half of) this decade.

A smartphone is not a phone. It is a pocket size personal computer. Even from a telecommunication perspective 3G was the last circuit switched voice connection, 4G has moved into computer networks architecture (VoLTE: Voice over LTE) and smartphones, whenever possible, use 4G and up (3G will be discontinued within this decade).

Yes, with a smartphone we can make “calls”, but by far most of the time we are using our smartphones for many different activities to the point that smartphones have become:

  • digital cameras and video cameras,
  • televisions, video players, media players, radios, walkie-talkie, webcams,
  • microphones, amplifiers,
  • scanners, barcode readers,
  • photoalbums, book readers,
  • GPS navigators,
  • Internet browsers, social media access,
  • payment tools (credit cards, mobile payment, payment apps,…),
  • business cards, airline tickets, theatre tickets,
  • watches, alarm clocks, timers,
  • agenda, rolodex, to do list,
  • voice recorders, note pads, translators,
  • calculators, spreadsheets, sketchpads, notepads, computers,
  • measuring tools, compass, level, sound level measurement
  • guitar tuners,
  • flashlight
  • health monitoring, physical trainers,
  • … (if you have other use for your smartphone, please let me know!)

No wonder that in the presentation of new smartphones the “voice call” is never ever mentioned as a feature!

So, we can say that cellphones are fading away, replaced by smartphones that are not something like a cellphone, rather some sort of pocket computer that we own. If we want to imagine the future, we should look at the future of pocket computers and that is probably steering towards wearable computers.  I can easily imagine a time (not that far away) where my glasses will be able to provide all the functionality of my smartphone, and more.

The hurdle is to have a screen that can morph into the lenses of a normal pair of glasses and a battery that can sustain a full day of operation without having to weight like a brick. The user voice-based interface is already well advanced and common, some further progress in gesture recognition will nicely complement the voice interaction and in the longer term some sort of brain computer interface may provide basic functionality like click, move, zoom…

If I look much further down the lane the wearable of tomorrow might become part of me, an augmentation of my physical self through the cyberspace achieved through a seamless bridge.


About Roberto Saracco

Roberto Saracco fell in love with technology and its implications long time ago. His background is in math and computer science. Until April 2017 he led the EIT Digital Italian Node and then was head of the Industrial Doctoral School of EIT Digital up to September 2018. Previously, up to December 2011 he was the Director of the Telecom Italia Future Centre in Venice, looking at the interplay of technology evolution, economics and society. At the turn of the century he led a World Bank-Infodev project to stimulate entrepreneurship in Latin America. He is a senior member of IEEE where he leads the Industry Advisory Board within the Future Directions Committee and co-chairs the Digital Reality Initiative. He teaches a Master course on Technology Forecasting and Market impact at the University of Trento. He has published over 100 papers in journals and magazines and 14 books.

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