Thinking outside the clamshell

One of the big questions raised by the iPhone last year was its potential impact on handset design, what with its sexy touch screen and emphasis on user-friendliness. The answer: not much.

Not yet, anyway. To be fair, design cycles aren't known for fast turnaround, but post-iPhone, the Big Five haven't produced much in the way of serious handset innovation. Yes, we've seen more touch screens (most of which were in the works before the iPhone came out), and we've seen slimmer and slimmer phones, and we've seen the occasional imaginative idea like Sony Ericcson's mood-based playlist.

But anything really groundbreaking‾

In a way, it depends where you look. Inside the phone, there's some very interesting technologies in the works, like motion sensors and chips that support top-notch 3D graphics, high-def video and far lower power consumption. By the end of this year we could be seeing the first handsets with integrated pico projectors, according to IMS Research.

That said, I was more impressed with a demo at CommunicAsia last year from Meta4hand, where phones could not only link to external projectors, but any dumb display with a Bluetooth or Wi-Fi link. I realize this goes against the trend of convergence that's turning handsets into all-purpose consumer electronics devices - but maybe that's not a bad thing.

One of the best quotes at MWC last month came from Martin Cooper, president of ArrayComm, and famed inventor of the mobile phone: 'We're trying to make handsets universal devices that do voice, text, MP3s, photos, video, internet access, but while they can do these things generally, they don't do any of them well.'

His idea for the future of mobile: instead of jamming consumer electronics into cellphones, manufacturers would install wireless devices into consumer electronics.

He may be on to something. Phones may have become the default digital camera and music player for many people, but that doesn't mean they're better products than standalones, just more convenient. An In-Stat report last month found that most business users don't particularly want a phone that does everything, and don't mind carrying a few devices around rather than just one.

Break it down

Mind you, a little convergence is okay - the smartphone's voice phone/PDA combo is a major hit among business users. Another way of looking at this is that end-users have a use for convergence if they can pick and choose what functions get integrated.

That's why I'm currently fascinated by startups offering customizable handsets. Israel-based modu offers a modular approach to mobile, where you can add and swap functionality via a range of interchangeable 'sleeves' or 'jackets' with different functionalities. Slip it into one jacket and it's a music player. Slip it in another and it's a video hub, or a gaming console, or a PND.

Meanwhile, US start-up Bug Labs is selling DIY phone modules that can be snapped together to create a phone with a touch screen, GPS, camcorder and motion sensor in whatever combination pleases you. If you can't be bothered to do the work, zzzPhone offers handsets to order - go to the website, select the features you want (camera, GPS, flashlight, touch screen, dual SIM slots) and your order is placed to a factory in Shenzhen, China, which will send it direct to you in about 15 days.


Talk about breaking the mold.

Whether any of them will make a dime is a different story, but it's worth asking why it's the start-ups and outsiders coming up with these ideas and not the Top Five handset makers. Maybe they know better. Maybe it's an NDA thing. Look at Nokia's 'Morph' concept (developed with the University of Cambridge), which proposes using nanotech to create stretchable, flexible form factors allowing users to shape their own handsets.

And that's probably a good thing. If cramming more functions into a cellphone is producing mixed results, maybe the place to start is rethinking the form factor - in which case, the future will belong to handset makers that can think outside the clamshell, candybar or slider.