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The Motorola 'X Phone' and what's next in smartphones

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Google's (NASDAQ:GOOG) Sundar Pichai, who heads both the company's Android efforts as well as its Chrome OS, has downplayed expectations of new Google-branded Nexus hardware at this week's I/O developer conference. Instead, he told Wired, the conference will be more focused on "all of the kinds of things we're doing for developers, so that they can write better things. We will show how Google services are doing amazing things on top of these two platforms."

That said, there have been persistent rumors that Google will give developers more information about Motorola Mobility's rumored "X Phone" during its I/O conference, if not the device itself. Rumors of such a device have been percolating since December, when the Wall Street Journal reported that Motorola was working on the next-generation device, which was said to include potential enhancements such as a bendable screen and materials like ceramics that would make the device more durable. Since then, leaked images and pictures have popped up online, and various rumors have built up about the phone. The FCC on Friday disclosed details about an unannounced Motorola phone, the XT 1058, which was certified with AT&T Mobility's (NYSE:T) LTE bands, as well as 802.11ac, Bluetooth 4.0 and NFC. It's unclear if that phone is the same Motorola phone that has popped up in recently leaked shots, which may or may not be the X Phone.

Google executives have never officially acknowledged the X Phone, but Motorola CEO Dennis Woodside, a former Google top sales executive, told the Journal in December that the company is "investing in a team and a technology that will do something quite different than the current approaches." Since then, Google CEO Larry Page and Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt have dropped hints as to what Motorola may be working on:

"Think about your devices, battery life is a huge issue. You shouldn't have to worry about constantly recharging your phone," Page said in January. "When you drop your phone, it shouldn't go splat. Everything should be done faster and easier."

In April, Schmidt called Motorola's upcoming products "phenomenal." While he noted that "Android is a very tough, competitive market," he said "witness this next generation of technology. Think of it as phones+." Shortly thereafter, Page repeated similar themes.

All of this is somewhat cryptic, which is likely by design. FierceWireless is taking Google's lead to investigate what's next in the world of smartphones. We asked a range of industry analysts for their thoughts on what could be game-changing smartphone improvements in the years ahead. Obviously there will be advances in screen resolution and processor speeds, but what could be some of the major innovations that could potentially change the way people interact with their smartphones? Check out our list of the possible advancements that smartphone users could see in the next few years.

Did we miss any innovations? Let us know what you think in the comments! --Phil

Durable screens and components
One of the biggest pain points for consumers is that their smartphones, worth hundreds of dollars, have glass screens that shatter easily. Corning has made a name for itself with its Gorilla Glass, but Gorilla Glass can still break under certain circumstances and it's not in every phone. How can smartphone makers improve on this point? According to those in the industry: By making phones softer, not harder.

Recon Analytics analyst (and FierceWireless contributor) Roger Entner explained that a softer device would be better because "then it bends, rather than breaks. Hardness is good up to a point."

And it's not just the glass screen that would have to be more resilient. "It's the rest of the components. That's really the challenge in making a flexible phone; it's not just the display and different layers of the display," said Reticle Research analyst Ross Rubin.

Current Analysis analyst Avi Greengart said that if consumers buy a phone with a two-year contract, the phone needs to survive for the duration of the contract. He noted that there are many ruggedized phones on the market today but many are big and chunky. "I'm waiting for [a handset maker] to step up and say, we will guarantee it will last the two-year contract," he said. "We know this is important."

Better battery life
The holy grail of the smartphone experience is a long battery life. Getting a smartphone to last through the day in the face of heavy usage is critical. Yet there only seems to be incremental improvements on this front. Current Analysis analyst Avi Greengart pointed out that Motorola Mobility has already produced smartphones with exceptional battery life in the Droid Razr Maxx and Droid Razr Maxx HD (both phones have exceptionally large batteries: 3300 mAH). Yet Greengart noted that both phones were sold only through Verizon Wireless (NYSE:VZ), which limited their impact on the market.

Researchers always seem to be cooking up ways to make leaps in battery life. In 2010, a Swiss research team announced work on ways for nanotechnology to improve the efficiency and battery-life of mobile phones and laptops ten-fold. In 2011, researchers at Northwestern University devised a new form of lithium-ion batteries that they claimed could last 10 times longer than current batteries and be charged 10 times faster. The researchers said at the time that the batteries could be on the market in three to five years. And Recon Analytics analyst Roger Entner pointed to research that shows ambient radio waves can be used to extend battery life. "It's like another antenna that absorbs the energy from the radio waves and turns it back into usable power," he said.

Reticle Research analyst Ross Rubin said he is unaware of any breakthroughs in battery life that are coming to market, though he acknowledged research is ongoing. "The challenge is commercializing it," he said. "And it becomes difficult to do it reliability or inexpensively enough." Greengart said that if Motorola does "have a superphone coming out and it has better battery life, that's definitely something you can advertise."

Contextual awareness
What if your device could pick up the questions you're asking around you, and load an app or make a search query without you directly touching the phone? What if it just knew what you wanted? "The devices are becoming more and more context aware," said Recon Analytics analyst Roger Entner. "That one is going to be very difficult because context is one of the most difficult things for anybody, even people, to detect."

Currently, simple contextual awareness can trigger smartphone behaviors: the phone's accelerometer can detect that a user is traveling at more than 50 mph, so it goes into "car mode," for example. Current Analysis analyst Avi Greengart said that advances in contextual awareness will come in part from advances in sensors and in part from software built in the core of a platform's operating system, as well as from applications. He noted that Motorola is already working on this to a certain extent with its Smart Actions, which can be finely tuned and adjusted by users to trigger a variety of actions if certain conditions are met.

IDC analyst John Jackson said advances in sensors, especially biometric ones, will bring added contextual awareness. "It will know when you pick it up what your mood is," he said. "It will know when someone else is carrying it because of the way it moves around," which could potentially enhance security. Still, he acknowledged that "contextual awareness is hard."

However, Entner pointed out one potentially significant drawback to contextual awareness: If a phone is constantly listening and sensing what a user is doing, and is constantly pinging a data network as a result, it will generate a great deal of signaling traffic, and that could cut into--you guessed it--battery life.

Phones as information collectors 
Most people tend to think of phones as devices that individuals interact with personally, usually via touch input but also increasingly via voice. But what if phones could be something else: both more peripheral to a user's mobile experience and more important in a larger context?

Reticle Research analyst Ross Rubin said that in the years ahead phones could mainly remain in users' pockets, delivering information instead to a wearable device. Indeed, many expect in the years ahead smart glasses and watches will grow into a significant market.

Additionally, there is an opportunity for phones to become information collection nodes in a Big Data push by carriers. "There is going to be a lot more use of collective intelligence and collective data collection opportunities," Rubin said. "Very few companies can produce detailed traffic data because they don't have enough probes out there constantly checking the state of traffic."

Indeed, an AT&T (NYSE:T) Labs study crunched anonymous cellular traffic data (most likely from AT&T Mobility's network) and found that people who live in Los Angeles travel longer distances on a typical day than people who live in San Francisco, who in turn travel longer distances than people who live in Manhattan. However, the longest trips taken by residents of Manhattan are much longer than those taken by residents of LA. What if consumers could access that kind of data, thereby obtaining a real-time view of current traffic conditions--or even shopping trends? Perhaps one day they will.

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