• November 27, 2014

More smart, less phone

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Posted: Thursday, June 19, 2014 4:30 am

NEW YORK — Smartphones don’t get people excited like they used to. Every Apple event these days brings fresh calls for “new product categories” and fresh disappointment when they don’t materialize. Yet bolder companies like Google and Samsung have introduced new types of futuristic mobile gadgets, and it turns out they don’t work very well. As much as the tech press has tried to hype smart glasses and smartwatches, they’re just too small to do very much at this point. They might develop into nifty peripherals for your smartphone, but they’re not going to replace it anytime soon.

We may be stuck with our trusty old pocket-computers for years to come. The good news is that they’re still evolving, probably more rapidly than we tend to give them credit for. I’m not talking about marginally faster processors, better cameras, curved glass, bigger screens or 3-D displays. I’m talking about new functionalities.

If there was an overarching takeaway from Apple’s annual developer conference last week, it’s that smartphones are becoming more than communications and entertainment devices. They’re becoming the mobile command centers of our lives. And far from pushing them aside, the next wave of consumer technologies is likely to make smartphones more essential than ever.

Today our iPhones and Android phones serve as messaging devices, cameras, Web browsers, music players, gaming and social networking platforms, and yes, sometimes even phones. They’re also starting to become artificial personal assistants. Here are three more things that smartphones are likely to become in the next few years — all of which involve communications between your apps and devices rather than between you and other people.

1. A universal remote control

for your appliances: Thermostats are just the beginning.

Like it or not, everything from door locks to light bulbs to refrigerators is starting to come equipped with Wi-Fi or Bluetooth connectivity. The idea is that you can monitor and control them remotely with your smartphone.

In some cases, these “smart” appliances are designed to learn from your behavior and adapt on their own. Even so, you’ll almost inevitably find yourself reaching for your smartphone when your thermostat’s rudimentary machine intelligence clashes with your unpredictable human needs.

The major smartphone-makers already put up big stakes in the fledgling “connected home” sector. Samsung has been making connected appliances for some time now, and earlier this year it launched “Smart Home” software for Android phones that lets you control them all from one app. In January, Google got into the game by splashing $3 billion on Nest. And this week, Apple announced HomeKit, a bid to bring the controls for a wide range of third-party connected devices together in a simple native iOS app.

2. A hub for your personal health data: Smartphones will remain the best way to store, integrate and analyze health data.

Third-party developers have been working for a few years now on smartphone apps or add-ons that can monitor and track your well-being in various ways. Early efforts included pedometers, medication reminders, nutrition trackers and even breathalyzers. And while smartwatches designed for things like email and text messages have been a bust so far, fitness bands that monitor your workouts and sync with your smartphone via Bluetooth are already quite popular.

As with smart appliances, the smartphone-makers are starting to realize that they can take the health-tracking trend mainstream by building native hardware and software for it. Samsung took the early lead with its S Health suite, and its latest flagship phone, the Galaxy S5, comes with a built-in heart-rate monitor. Apple’s answer on the software side is a new platform called HealthKit.

3. A portable computer that you can control with other devices: Not only will your smartphone be a remote control for your other appliances, it will be another appliance that you can control remotely. Today, if you want to use your smartphone, you usually have to pull it out of your pocket and control it directly. But Google, Microsoft, BlackBerry and Apple are all working on software that will let you control your phone from your car’s dashboard, and several major car companies have already developed similar capabilities.

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