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The modifications need not end there, according to Tapani Ryhanen, head of Multimedia Devices Research at Nokia. Whereas today customers snap on decorative cases, in the future such cases may come with songs built in. Or they may have specialized RFID (radio frequency ID) tags that can be used to pay for lift tickets and mochas at a favorite ski resort.

As mobile devices continue to shrink, and as more complex circuitry can be printed on flexible materials, Ryhanen says we can “start talking about building future mobile devices that are much more wearable, something you can wear around your wrist or embed in your clothing.”

Before we reach that point, however, two looming challenges are emerging as more and more features are added to mobile devices. First, more memory is needed to store songs, pictures, and eventually high-definition video when the devices become high-quality camcorders as well. Ryhanen says Nokia is keeping a close eye on developments in high-capacity storage, “an area where we believe there will be some very disruptive technologies emerging.” Ryhanen points to work using carbon nanotubes and micromechanics to make ultra-dense storage devices.

Perhaps as great a challenge as memory storage is finding a way to power complex devices. Nokia’s major competitor, Motorola, has announced work on using carbon nanotubes to create super-efficient micro-fuel cells. Toshiba, according to Iannucci, “has developed very interesting lithium-ion cells that can be recharged in about a minute.” He said Nokia is very close to being able to put these into products.

But better batteries may not be the best long-term solution. “Putting more energy into a battery, and then having that fail in some fundamental way can be colossal. We’ve all read about products that have caught fire,” Iannucci said. In the future, new technologies will “distribute and segregate the energy” in the “equivalent of having lots of little batteries.”

In spite of his skepticism, then, Iannucci has concluded “nanomaterials offers some very intriguing possibilities, both in the short and the long term.”

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