The upcoming few years will bring great technology and design improvements to smartphones. An increasingly cluttered marketplace, seismic changes in the digital landscape and advances in key technologies will force manufacturers to go beyond the incremental advances we’ve seen.
Consumers have long fixated on a handful of features with which they comparison shop (screen specs, processors, battery capacity, memory and camera), greatly influencing where manufacturers have dedicated a bulk of their efforts. But in order to maintain relevancy and a point of difference in the market, smartphone makers will increasingly need to shift focus to new emerging technologies, address long overlooked elements and adapt to the changing demands on smartphones in our daily lives. Let’s go through my smartphone predictions for the upcoming few years…
Screens have taken much of the spotlight over recent years, now it’s audio’s turn. Expect most if not all of the flagship phones to use high resolution audio components and software as standard, with many touting their “audiophile grade” circuits and dedicated processors. The overdue movement to more sophisticated audio has already begun, expected major emphasis on it in the coming year. Additionally, greater amplifier outputs to better power those ridiculous studio-grade titanic cans everyone’s wearing as they walk around and commute on the train. They’re power hungry and are often ill-matched for the power output provided by the typical mobile devices of today.
More collaborations with brand name audio component makers will likely occur, attempting to lend their audio credibility, as we’ve seen in the notebook and automotive industries (Bose branded car audio systems, B&O notebook speakers, etc). These branding exercises are often laughable given the quality of their respective audio quality (can you honestly say any of the branded notebook audio experiences you’ve heard matched the expectations the branding promised?) However the magic of marketing often prevails common sense and companies will use it, consumers will buy it.
Microphones will play a greater role as use of virtual assistants increases, and it’s their capability to accurately capture your speech that will make or break adoption of verbal commands and natural language. Microphone technology has sadly been left to stagnate, often left hidden in the shadows of camera and display tech advances, specifications around the microphone rarely even make an appearance on spec lists. This will change in the coming years, advances in echo and noise cancelling, improved voice isolation and recognition will come about through advances in both microphone hardware and software. Devices such as Amazon’s Echo where spoken commands at a distance are essential to the product’s usability are ushering in such technologies, with more intelligent microphone arrays and software, such advances will start to appear and be featured in smartphones soon. Expect branding and models to define the features and expectations of microphones in specification lists, just as processors do now.
The often hotly debated and speculated replacement for the long enduring headphone jack will happen. Expect a combination of wireless and plug-in replacement solutions, with a complete transition to entirely wireless devices in the somewhat near future. Smartphones without ports will appear, as wireless charging is standardised, improved in efficiency and becomes ubiquitously supported in charging peripherals, cars, office desks, and so forth. Smartphone companies, as they predictably do, will go off into their own factions creating version and standards hell for the first one to two years of transition off headphone jacks, but will likely stabilise when everyone drops their egos and agrees to one or two widely adopted platforms.
Batteries will enjoy a sudden jump in capacity and longevity of charge, expect 2 to 3 days becoming the new flagship norm within the next couple years, with budget and midrange phones lagging or replacing the original flagship usage per change. Rapid charging and wireless charging will grow considerably in availability across premium and even midrange smartphones. Longevity of the physical battery will vastly increase through use of new materials and chemistry. Expect the typical 400-1,000 charge cycle life of current generation lithium-ion batteries to be smashed with triple or more lifespans in charge holding ability, all with reduced form factors and reliability.
Cameras will produce images that are largely indistinguishable to the untrained eye to something produced by a mid-range DSLR. Improvements in technologies, size and light capturing, along with better lenses and stabilisation will mean a great measurable and subjective improvement across the board. We’re already in the midst of this, expect more to come as phones all but completely exterminate the point and shoot camera market into extinction. Software will also get a boost, vastly improving manual controls on flagship and select midrange phones, bringing the creative control of smartphone photography significantly closer to DSLR levels. Lastly, the common problem plaguing smartphone photography, particularly at the midrange segment of mediocre or poor low-light photo quality will start to see considerable improvements as the segment gets the hand-me-downs from current flagships.
Design & Materials
Experiments with the ridiculous gimmickry of phones like the modular LG G5 will subside as companies realise consumer’s low appetite for buying modules for functions and features that should realistically be part of the core device will dictate market direction. Modules for improving sound quality or changing the lens will show little or no uptake by consumers which will result in phones going back to being the all-in-ones they should be.
There’s only so many ways you can configure a millimetres thin device that fits in your hand made of some combination of glass, plastic and metal. New materials may make their appearance in upcoming models to “dazzle”, improve durability and better allow heat dissipation under load. These materials will be lightweight, survive bend tests and overall have freakishly amazing attributes (likened to what Gorilla Glass did to screens). Possibly expect better radiation exposure protection, while this won’t be a marketed feature for obvious reasons, it may silently work to reduce SAR levels.
Manufacturers may trial phone models (largely in the mid-tier) with embellishments, elaborate colour treatments, textures and lighting effects targeted to particular consumer segments, such as students or gaming enthusiasts to align the design with their particular interests. An analogy being the computer mouse segment targeted to gamers, the devices are heavily adapted for both the functional and aesthetic desires of the audience.
Screens will support HDR along with adopting other TV’esq features such as quantum dot and other largely refinement type technologies. OLED will become more common place as the manufacturing costs and yields finally start to make sense for wider use. Adaptive screen and software combinations will respond to environmental factors more effectively (time of day, lighting conditions, glare, etc) as standard on most smartphones. The recent pullback from QHD / UHD to 1080 resolutions, particularly at the midrange, due to resource conservation will be reversed and UHD screens will prevail as a combination of screen, GPU and software advances will lessen the resource blow of moving so many pixels.
The health of the tablet market will continue to decline. In particular on the Android side of the equation, being saturated in recent years with ill designed budget devices and little innovation on the top end. This will place further pressure on the smartphone market to fill the gap, ensuring large screen phablets still have a valid place in the market. Use of phones as a primary computing device in developing countries will also continue driving the need for large screen smartphones.
Virtual reality will burst onto the scene in a big way, with most phones at most price points making bold claims as to their VR abilities. Budget to midrange phones will advertise but likely not deliver compelling VR experiences, as their under powered hardware and gimmickry ultimately leads to widespread dissatisfaction. While the top end will start to see jumps in VR experience quality and refinements, but suffer from lack of genuinely useful or entertaining applications in the near term. Many VR ports of existing titles may create disillusion of the VR movement with only a handful of exemplary examples carrying the technology.
Greater capabilities of smartphones to integrate and control vehicles will make a tsunami wave into the automotive market. Making your smartphone the key, diagnostics, configuration and hailing platform for your car. Consumers will lap it up, and auto manufacturers will gladly oblige.
Likewise with your home audio and video, smartphones will be the central commander for all your equipment and dedicated physical remotes will take a back seat, often becoming little more than simplified remotes for basic functionality that serves as a backup to the app on your mobile device. This transition will happen relatively fast at both the high-end and mid-range market segments as the lure of app control will entice customers of all levels and reduce physical product costs for manufacturers.
Microsoft had the right idea about using a phone as a desktop that could easily be connected to a screen and largely function like a regular desktop. The only slip ups in that strategy were they couldn’t sell any phones and their initial implementation was clumsy. Other companies will pick up the slack on this concept (possibly with some combination of Android and Chrome) and make smartphones as capable desktop replacements with easy monitor connectivity. Targeted mostly for developing countries and globally to low and mid market consumers who can no longer justify the purchase and maintenance of a notebook or (gasp) a full blown desktop computer.
Thanks to a combination of ratcheting up 3D NAND production and free falling prices of solid state storage in general, expect triple digit gigabyte storage on flagship phones to be typical, with mid-weight phones getting the hand me down specs from the current flagships. Further clock speeds and architecture improvements will keep it inline with processor and graphics improvements. Memory capacity will continue to increase, jumping to 4-6GBs as standard issue with select premium smartphones offering 8GB and above.
Vibrate modes will be further refined to offer a more haptic experience to better communicate what it’s signalling. Stronger, more precise vibration capabilities with a broader range of effects will allow it to indicate various notifications by feeling, think of it capable of doing, for example, the “knock-knock” sequence you’d do on a door.
Like the long standing headphone jack, the mighty notification light will get a refresh to better communicate more information. Miniature OLED displays showing icons and numerical counters will likely replace single LED lights used on all popular phones today.
GPS long left untouched by the marketing department will enjoy a new focus on accuracy, speed of location locking and lessened power demands. New chipsets and receivers under branded monikers will grace the spec lists for people placing importance on positional accuracy. Making constant or near constant positioning practical, rather than the sparing use of todays devices to conserve resources. Further support for indoor beacons will compliment outdoor GPS use for uses such as better guidance in shopping malls and airports, but also assisting to park in underground parking lots, navigate subway stations and so forth.
Processors will continue their gradual but consistent improvements in speed, power efficiency and capabilities in a curve relatively similar to historic trends, and inline with progress seen elsewhere such as desktop processors. It is unlikely a jolt of sudden new found capabilities will arrive. GPUs and graphics subsystems will enjoy a greater performance and capabilities improvement curve, inline with the swift overall graphics power improvements seen in desktop and notebook discreet graphics cards in the most recent generations.
Fed by consumer’s growing consciousness of security and privacy, companies will hasten their efforts on a variety of fronts to bolster the perception of security in their devices and services. Multi-factor authentication will rapidly evolve, with considerable improvements in the speed and accuracy of iris and facial scanning from greater distances and angles, resulting in completely transparent authentication. Expect the need for passwords and PINs to be largely eradicated as we move to a more biometric based security ecosystem led by the major players with smaller entities following suit. Messengers, file sharing, payment and social platforms will possibly have newly strengthened encryption standards and secure peer-to-peer protocols that rely on improved hardware support for background cryptography processing.
While manufacturers, telcos and consumers alike are eagerly anticipating 5G connectivity, it will likely fall outside of the scope of this prediction as all the pieces of the puzzle slowly come together for the next-gem devices and global infrastructure.
While dual SIM card capable smartphones are popular in particular global markets such as Southeast Asia, they’re less available in others such as North America. This is likely to change as SIM trays become dual SIM or hybrid SIM and memory card capable on most midrange and premium phones worldwide. All while the SIM card concept itself is challenged by modernised approaches that will likely supplant the mighty SIM within a couple generations of phones.
802.11AC Wi-Fi compatibility will trickle down to the vast majority of devices as standard, wrapping up the long run of 802.11n. However, nothing particularly exciting is foreseen on this front, as only very incremental improvements in antennae design and radio chip technologies help to improve connectivity and reduce power consumption.
Further sensor array additions will likely happen, altitude for people in related sports, additional body sensors for health monitoring. Temperature sensors will allow for crowd sourcing micro climate data for incredibly detailed weather forecasting and information services. Working with proximity and other sensors, smartphones will determine when appropriately positioned to take temperature and send back to service. As smartphones will play a greater role in portable AR and VR experiences, there will be new found focus on greater accuracy of motion, accelerometer and other sensors needed to support such experiences.