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The World. In the Palm of Your Hand

No single technology has done more to change our lifestyles in the past decade than the smartphone. Social networking, viral videos, the rise of the app economy, the FaceTime facelift, the flash mob, a civil war in Tunisia – these were all made possible by the fact that there are now more phones than people on the planet.

The phenomenon is not lost on the businesses and research institutions who stand to reap enormous rewards by helping to improve the speed, reliability, interface and security of these amazing devices. Overall patent volume in the telecom category increased 6 percent year-over-year from 2013 to 2014, and in the mobile telephony category, patent activity is up 22 percent year-over-year. That’s just the beginning. Virtually every other industry – from health care to information technology – have major developments in the works that rely on smartphones to get into the hands of end users.

So what’s on the horizon in the smartphone space? Are we getting closer to a day when our phones are physically implanted into our brains at birth? Not quite. But, if the innovators in this sector have their way, the smartphone will be more seamlessly integrated into our every waking moment than ever before.

Telecommunication satellite

For some insight into what the next few years of smartphone innovation will bring, we dug into the patent and scientific literature for examples of specific technologies companies are working on today. We also tapped our own Bob Schukai, head of advanced product innovation at Thomson Reuters. In his day job, Schukai is responsible for overseeing the development and execution of mobile growth strategy across the Thomson Reuters organization. He’s also a veteran of Turner Broadcasting and Motorola and a 28-year member of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers. Even when he’s not working, though, Schukai is a self-proclaimed gadget geek and part-time rock star known to legions of Twitter followers as @iammobilebob. Schukai shared his top five predictions for the future of smartphone development.

Telecom Patents Explode

Since the initial smartphone boom unlocked the potential to harness the world at your fingertips, the quest to achieve ever-faster Internet speeds at wider ranges has been fast and furious. Patenting activity in the telecom category has increased dramatically. Over the last six years, telecom patent volume has grown over 18 percent.

With 4,261 patents in 2014 alone, Samsung paces the world in smartphone innovation. Having singlehandedly created the smartphone category back in 1999, Samsung has continued to invest in intellectual property to bolster its product line offerings, all while deflecting and pursuing litigation to ensure its designs stay proprietary. Huawei (4,070 new patents) is hot on Samsung’s tail, with LG (2,538 new patents) coming in third in the category overall.

“Mobile adoption rates have been insane over the past few years, so much so that there are now more phones than people on the planet. That technology is getting into the hands of people at every end of the spectrum – we’re seeing the obvious high-end growth in demand for the latest version of the iPhone or the Galaxy, but we’re also seeing people in impoverished countries that have never had the infrastructure to access landline phones getting onto the Internet. Now, everyone has the Internet in the palm of their hands and that’s creating huge new opportunities, both for companies in the space and lots of tangential players,” said Schukai.

True to Schukai’s observations, the tech giants aren’t the only ones getting in on the game. The top three organizations generating the most influential telecom research are all academic institutions: Rice University (Texas), University of California Berkeley, and State University of New York (SUNY) Stony Brook, respectively, implying that applications for these telecom patents are not merely commercial in nature.

Access Makes Perfect

It seemed like just yesterday that no one could imagine a service faster than 3G. But now, with 4G LTE networks inundated with new users every single day, companies are going back to the drawing board to build out faster networks with larger capacities.

As anyone who has ever been met with the dreaded loading circle can tell you, technology is useless without the infrastructure to support it. In order to harness the power of a future made possible by these massive telecom filings, broadband capability is needed to bring them to life. That seems to be a primary focus for some major players in the telecom space. Just five months into 2015, Google, Qualcomm, ZTE Corp and NTT Docomo have all filed patents in this category, with surely more to follow suit.

“Our insatiable appetite for mobile bandwidth will continue and new technologies, such as 5G, will be key to this in compliment with continued WiFi access point build-outs,” Schukai opined. “Telecoms will be the key backbone technology for solving big global problems like education, health and food production. Telcoms providers also increasingly are responsible for backhaul – connecting mobile phone towers to the Internet itself – to ensure that WiFi and 5G speeds actually deliver content quickly to mobile devices. Developing markets will accelerate their own economic and people success through fundamental application of mobile network connectivity.”

WowFi

Big Data is seemingly a factor in all categories, and it’s no different in telecoms. With billions of users boasting instant connectivity to the world, an opportunity exists in the zebibytes that can be pulled off these devices. New integrations, such as RFID technology that rely on both active and passive scanners, require faster network connectivity with a larger capacity on fiber optic networks, and that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Algorithmic trading firms, logistics companies and pretty much every single business in the world that runs an Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) program could easily and reliably transition this software onto the cloud, which is a game-changer for big business, and some major players are already jumping into the space.

ProjectFi, a Google development designed to transition mobile communications onto fiber optic networks, is already up and running, with others to follow. AT&T, NTT, Ericsson, Alcatel Lucent and Huawai have already been granted patents this year in the optical network category, a development that could change the way the world does business.

As Gartner analyst Bettina Traz-Ryan recently explained to The Wall Street Journal, in reference to Google’s ProjectFi:

A faster connection could help spur current efforts collecting and analyzing data from sensor-enabled objects, a system aimed at yielding valuable insights into operations commonly known as the Internet of Things. . . . Businesses can get data much faster without any latency, so the quality of the data is improving.

Personalization

When we first laid our eyes and ears on Siri, she was helping Samuel L. Jackson prepare a romantic anniversary for his wife. But by now, we’ve come to expect far more from our electronic personal assistants, and soon, we could have highly personalized content delivered right to our devices.

“The experience that you have with content and information will be highly personalized, contextual and relevant to you on any screen you have at your disposal,” Schukai explained. “Think Google Now, but more vastly knowledgeable about what’s important and appropriate.”

This year, Google has been joined by Amazon, Xerox, LinkedIn and eBay in patenting personal data retrieval technology that spans payment applications to customized content on social media. Of note is the appearance of LinkedIn, Amazon and eBay, all non-telecoms companies that are delving into this space. As companies continue to diversify their offerings, these blurred lines make it possible for many different types of companies to play an active role in the smartphone future.

Internet of Me

Between the popularity of Fitbit and Apple’s integration of their health app into their new iOS and the Apple Watch, wearables are here to stay. In a report from Salesforce, 63 percent of millennials said that they would be interested in proactively providing their health data from WiFi/wearable devices to their doctor/provider so they can monitor their well-being, and that may be just the beginning.

“We’re going to see an explosion in things talking to things, or the Internet of Things (IoT), that will eventually bring on rapid change in areas such as smart cars/highways, personal healthcare and wellbeing – leading to a new paradigm called IoM – the Internet of Me,” said Schukai.

According to market research firm Visiongain, the global wearables technology market will reach $16.1 billion by the end of this year, with a huge market disruption set for 2018. The patenting trend of the last two years would seem to corroborate this projection. Qualcomm, Samsung, Philips, LG and the Electronics and Telecommunications Research Institute are among the entities that have filed for wearable health tracking mobile technology patents between 2014 and 2015. The titles of these filings depict a future of mobile alerts that can be sent to a parent from the bio sensor of sick child at school, or remote medical diagnosis of chronic diseases.

Patenting Privacy

Though you wouldn’t know it from their behavior, Americans do in fact worry about their privacy being compromised on their cell phones. According to a 2014 Pew Research Center study, 80 percent of adults “agree” or “strongly agree” that Americans should be concerned about the government’s monitoring of phone calls and Internet communications. Just 18 percent “disagree” or “strongly disagree.” Given that prevailing attitude, it would stand to reason that smartphone manufacturers would be working to capitalize on the consumer sensitivity, and – for the last five years – that has indeed been the case.

Patenting in the areas of call monitoring, including eavesdropping, interception and protecting the privacy of cellular callers, has increased dramatically. Only about 100 patents were filed in 2010. That number has increased to 1,000 in 2014.

While most of the world carries Apple’s iPhone or a Samsung Galaxy in their pocket, those multi-billion dollar companies are not the ones leading the way in the race for cell security. ZTE Corp (just over 160 patents), and Blackberry (100 patents) rank at the top of the filing list, with Samsung at seventh with less than 60 patents in the field. Apple does not even appear on the list.

“The more sensitive or complex an action, the more prevalent the need for security,” Schukai said. “When it comes to the nature of the telecom industry, security is bound to be a major area of focus in the decade ahead.”

Where Will Tomorrow Land?

With major players making drastic moves, the telecom industry stands poised to give us some of the most influential technological advancements in the next decade ahead. And as firms continue to innovate, both inside and outside the immediate purview of their companies, there’s no telling what historic feat the world will stumble upon next. As the technology in our lives becomes seamlessly integrated to the screens in front of our faces, the only given about the future may very well be nearsightedness.