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Mobile Hardware Is Going to Disappear

By Tom Kaneshige, CIO
March 19, 2013 04:40 PM ET

CIO - If you've ever worn glasses, at one time or another you wondered where they were, only to realize you were wearing them all along. That is the magic of Google Glass, a wearable computing project from Google.

[ALSO: Google Glasses: a lot of hype but not much information]

If you're a Star Trek fan, you know crew members on the starship Enterprise can ask a question aloud, and an answer comes seemingly out of nowhere. That is the magic of Apple's Siri and other voice-enabled artificial intelligence engines.

If you've watched the movie "Minority Report," you saw Tom Cruise wave his hands and manipulate floating images. That is the magic of an infrared gesture-detection sensor, a new feature found in the Samsung Galaxy S4 announced last week.

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Each of these scenarios provides a glimpse of the future, where the computer is omnipresent yet invisible. We're not there, of course, but this is where we're headed. Are you using an Apple iPad? Samsung Galaxy smartphone? It won't matter, because the branded hardware-the technology doing the heavy lifting-will eventually fade into the background.

Only human senses will remain: sight, sound and touch colliding with a virtual reality.

Today, so much is made of hardware specs. What's the chip speed? How big is the screen? What's the resolution? How long is the battery life? All good questions, to be sure. But the Galaxy S4, the newest entry in the smartphone market, shows hardware reaching a high water mark. It's getting gimmicky, and it's becoming increasingly unclear where hardware, as we know it, goes from here.

"What more is to be done on the smartphone form factor?" asks Aberdeen Group research director Andrew Borg.

It's time to re-think hardware, Borg says, whereby innovation happens whenever the user and the experience come closer together without technology in the way. To be fair, mobile giants Apple, Google and Samsung are making strides to hide the hardware.

One of the features that most impressed Borg at the Galaxy S4 unveiling last week was the smartphone being used in a car. When the Galaxy S4 is plugged into a cradle designed for a car, the screen's fonts get larger and the brightness adjusts for the driver. The smartphone defaults to the text-to-speech converter so that messages can be heard, not necessarily read.

Most importantly, the gesture-detection sensor allows the driver to make motions with his free hand in front of the screen to change music, turn on apps, accept phone calls, and perform all sorts of functions-all without taking his eyes off the road. The driver becomes like a magician waving a wand and making things happen, while the hardware remains quite literally unseen.

"Mobility is not defined by the device, software application or network access, but by the user and their context - that's ultimately what mobility is about," Borg says, adding, "This way, devices will eventually become virtualized or transparent. But we're not there yet."

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