Packaging for a vintage Star Trek TricorderOne of the key reasons for the iPhones’s success is its ability to run apps. What’s notable about this is that the name “iPhone” is a huge misnomer – the device so many people call a phone is not really a phone at all (even smartphone is a stretch). We think it’s one because: we bought it to replace our old mobile phone (which really was a phone); because of the “phone” part in its name; and because – yes – it is capable of making and receiving calls. But the device itself is a chameleon. It can transform into whatever the software and its inputs and outputs allow it to do.

For example, in the past if Jenny wanted an audio recording device to record counselling sessions with clients, she’d have to go and buy a tape recorder. Now instead, she simply installs a recording app on her iPhone, and the built-in microphone and storage capabilities of the device delivers the functionality she needs.

So predicting the next big advance in gadgetry becomes about how many input and output modes we can generalise into a single device, like how touchscreens and GPS were groundbreaking additions to mobile devices. Geeks everywhere are anticipating the next round of smartphones, but the rumour mill merely points to “upgrades” that improve existing technologies – faster processors, better screens and higher resolution cameras. But nothing really revolutionary…. well OK, there’s Near Field Communications (NFC), which may have the potential to transform commercial transactions, although innovation in the financial realm is generally resisted by large, incumbent institutions like banks (consider how many years it took for Paypal to become widely accepted – a scenario currently being played out again with Square, a payment system devised by the man who created Twitter).

Really, we may already know what the future of handheld devices look like. Just as the Apple Newton might have paved the way for the iPhone (although one would be drawing a long bow to suggest that they could’ve predicted one from the other), technologies that already exist today give us glimpses into upcoming devices. Pointing the way are the tricorders from the fictional Star Trek universe – for which there’s now an X Prize on offer to the first group that is able to successfully develop one – and of course that old McGuffin, Dr. Who’s sonic screwdriver.

The question comes down to need. If you could carry it in your hand, what would your ideal mobile device include?