What will it take to get you jazzed about smartphones again?
The industry appears mostly stuck in neutral, as was evident at the Mobile World Congress trade show that took place recently. There was a me-too-ness to most of the handsets on display, and it’s been this way for a while. It was equally telling that one of the biggest stories to come out of MWC was about the relaunch of the Nokia 3310, a cheap compact throwback phone that debuted around the turn of century.
Nor did it help that the two most high profile players on the global smartphone stage, Apple and Samsung, are holding their next big devices for another day – the latter’s Galaxy S8 is slated to be unveiled this month, with the 10th anniversary iPhone most likely arriving in September.
There’s another key factor in play though: the phone in your pocket is already pretty-darn capable, which is why so many of you are hanging onto devices that much longer.
Of course, it’s not like there’s been zero progress of late. Numerous handsets boast superior screens, improved cameras, zippier processors, fast wireless charging and batteries that squeeze out a little extra juice. We shouldn’t minimize this. Even modestly priced devices can typically deliver more than we ask of them.
So what might get you excited again? Here’s what to keep your eyes and ears on:
Obviously, this rodeo has begun. The spread of voice capable AI-infused digital assistants represents one key driver to where innovation is going. Google has now unleashed the constantly improving Google Assistant across the Android ecosystem, not just on the company’s own Pixel phones. Amazon’s Alexa is just starting to make it onto handsets, the first being the Mate 9 from China’s Huawei.
Google and Amazon are only pressuring Siri – a long time presence on the iPhone – to improve. And let’s not discount another veteran voice, Cortana from Microsoft. Such assistants may soon be joined by another vocal newbie: If the rumors prove to be true, Samsung’s Galaxy S8 will feature a smart, loquacious assistant named Bixby.
We’ve seen how Samsung has pushed curved screens through recent iterations of its S-series flagship devices, not to mention on the ill-fated Note 7, and use those edge displays to surface additional information.
The LG G6 flagship that was unveiled in Barcelona is almost all screen, given its extremely thin bezels. Going bezel-less (or at least bezel-lite) may become the new normal. Rumors are we’ll see something similar on the Galaxy S8.
The next iPhone may also be near edge-to-edge, perhaps with a Touch ID fingerprint sensor and home button embedded directly into what may be a flexible OLED display.
There’s also a great deal of speculation that the new iPhone will be ready for some form of augmented reality, and possibly through 3D camera technology, facial recognition.
Chief executive Tim Cook hasn’t been shy about Apple’s interest in AR, and analyst Gene Munster of Loup Ventures recently speculated that if the next iPhone integrates a dedicated 3D mapping chip as expected, it could be the first AR hardware to gain mass adoption, which he defines as selling more than 100 million units in a year.
It’s still early days for Google’s Project Tango, though partner Lenovo introduced the Phab 2 Pro based on this AR-based technology – you look through the screen to see objects overlaid on top of the real world – last August. Tango employs computer vision to help devices understand their position relative to their physical surroundings.
Indeed, virtual reality is already happening, at least when you pair a compatible phone with a Daydream or Gear VR.
LG has already backed off an area it pushed hard a year ago, notably a modular approach to phone design. At the push of a button, G5 owners were able to slide modular components onto the phone to supply a better camera or superior speaker. It was apparently a bust; the new G6 doesn’t accommodate such modules.
More bad news for the modular approach? Late last summer, Google shelved its own Project Ara modular phone project, at least for now, with no such phones ever making it to market.
Lenovo-owned Motorola, however, is sticking with the concept through the Moto Mods accessories made for its premium Z-series phones. Mods easily snap on or off to turn the phone into a projector or give it a longer-lasting battery.
TRUE WIRELESS CHARGING
Wireless charging as we know it today involves slapping a compatible phone down on a wireless charging pad or mat that itself is connected to a power source. Yep, there’s a wire involved under this otherwise wireless scenario.
Efforts are underway to charge devices in a truly untethered manner, through the air, similar to how we receive wi-fi signals.Companies such as Ossia and Energous, the latter rumoured to be an Apple partner, have also been working on charging-at-a-distance technology. Apple itself has been a latecomer to conventional wireless charging, something I’d expect to come to the next iPhone. Whether it will involve a charging pad or something cooler and more out there is something we’ll have to wait and see.
There’s a lot of hype around the lightning-fast next generation of internet connectivity known as 5G, which in terms of smartphones will translate to speeds of at least 1-gigabit per second, with a latency of under 10ms.
Though companies like China’s ZTE bragged about having the world’s first Gigabit phone during MWC, it’s merely a prototype at this stage, with no official launch date.
5G trials are already taking place, however, and zippier phones are indeed promised sooner than later. Still, the best guess is that true 5G handsets won’t achieve mainstream status until the early 2020s.
Here’s hoping smartphones will become cool again, long before then.