7 Ways to Make Smart Phones Truly Smart (Now It's Your Turn)

Smart phones are getting more powerful all the time. It’s almost scary. Over the past six months alone we’ve seen 1-GHz processors, HD video recording, AMOLED screens, and mobile hotpspot apps go mainstream. But are smart phones really getting smarter? Not as much as I’d like.

Don't get me wrong. There are plenty of good examples of companies leveraging the brawn of today’s superphones, such as Google’s Voice Actions (for sending text messages, launching web sites, and more with your voice) and Apple’s high-dynamic range photo feature in iOS 4.1 (which combines multiple exposures into a single image). However, as the next wave of superphones launch, I’d like to see the software truly catch up to the hardware.

I have some ideas to make smart phones smarter, but I’d also love to hear yours.

1. Battery meters that know when your phone is going to die.

Because all of today’s smart phones can multitask—and just do a heck of a lot more in general—it’s no surprise that many of them run out of power faster than just a year or two ago. Some smart phone makers do their best to warn you when certain apps will suck up more juice than others, especially hotspot apps. But I’d like to see a better battery meter or notification system that gives you an estimated time your battery will die based on what you’re doing—kind of like laptops today, but more intelligent. Granted, this feature would take additional processing power, which in turn would affect battery runtime, but it would be nice to have the option.

2. Set and customize a wake alarm with your voice.

When you’re about to nod off to sleep, the last thing you want to do is futz with a clock app. Wouldn’t it be great if you could just press a button on your smart phone and say “Alarm set for 6 a.m.”? For those phones with physical keyboards, it would be even more convenient to just start typing the above phrase. Let’s take things a step further. How about “Wake up to artist Phoenix at 6 a.m.,” so you could rise and shine with your favorite music? Or how about “Wake up to NYTimes.com,” so you could check the headlines before hitting the shower? I’d also love it if you could bark at your phone “Snooze for five minutes” without pressing anything. That would be awesome.

3. Favorite a song without touching the screen.

You’re walking along listening to Pandora or Slacker when you hear a track you really like. Instead of pressing the power button to light up the display and then pressing that Thumbs Up or Heart button, I’d like to see shortcuts. Maybe it could be pressing and holding the home button while the handset is in your pocket, shaking the phone, or—if you have headphones on with a mic—saying “Like this song” into the mic.

4. Personalized and more social app stores.

Amazon does it, so why can’t Apple, or Android, or BlackBerry? Today when you visit any one of these app storefronts, you’re greeted with the same generic start screen as any other visitor. Since you have a purchase history, there should be more personalized recommendations based on what you’ve downloaded previously. You should also be able to see at a glance what your Facebook friends have downloaded (provided they’re willing to share that info) recently to make the app discovery experience more social.

5. Self-organizing home screens.

One of the first things I do when I’m testing an Android phone is drag shortcuts to the home screen for apps I use most often. On Apple’s iOS, the apps are listed alphabetically by default, though it’s easy to move them around and organize them into folders. I’d like to see the apps I use all the time automatically populate the first home screen you see when you turn on or unlock your phone. (iOS 4 displays the last four apps you used in its multitasking menu, but I want more.) The BlackBerry 6 OS comes closest to what I’m looking for with its Frequent menu. Still, you have to swipe over to see these apps.

6. What you missed in TV, delivered fresh each morning.

I don’t know if you agree but TV is getting a lot better. Last week I was torn between watching The Office, Fringe, and Boardwalk Empire, which were all on at the same time. Sure, I set my DVR to record one of the two shows I couldn’t watch live, but I often don’t have time to catch up. I wish my smart phone could sync up with my DVR via 802.11n Wi-Fi or just download the shows I missed overnight from the cloud. When I fire up my smart phone during the morning commute, Michael Scott and the gang should just be waiting for me to press Play. AT&T's U-Verse app for iPhone is a good start, but you must manually download shows, and not all content providers are on board. Who knows, maybe Hulu Plus could deliver this kind of functionality by working with cable and satellite providers--if they weren’t so busy building their own apps.

7. Combining apps in smarter ways.

As the size of smart phone screens increases, it makes perfect sense to make the most of available real estate. For example, in landscape mode it would be convenient if you could see your inbox on the left and calendar on the right so you could easily check your schedule without switching between apps. You could also easily drag and drop info into new appointments you set up. Also, how about integrating weather data into the calendar so you can see whether you’ll need that umbrella? Another potentially compelling mash-up idea: being able to see text messages pop up within the maps app, which would make it easier to tell just how late your family or friends are running.

Okay, I threw a lot of ideas out there. But now it’s your turn to sound off. How would you make smart phones smarter?

Editor-in-chief Mark Spoonauer directs LAPTOP's online and print editorial content and has been covering mobile and wireless technology for over a decade. Each week Mark's SpoonFed column provides his insights and analysis of the biggest mobile trends and news. You can also follow him on Twitter.

Mark Spoonauer
Responsible for the editorial vision for Laptopmag.com, Mark Spoonauer has been Editor in Chief of LAPTOP since 2003 and has covered technology for nearly 15 years. Mark speaks at key tech industry events and makes regular media appearances on CNBC, Fox and CNN. Mark was previously reviews editor at Mobile Computing, and his work has appeared in Wired, Popular Science and Inc.