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AH TechTalk: The Next Smartphone Evolution

March 23, 2016 - Written By David Steele

This week, Apple announced an iPhone that didn’t carry the “best ever” moniker; instead, they have reinvented the 4-inch screen with the iPhone SE. Apple’s new iPhone reuses the same design as the iPhone 5, which itself represented a stretched design of the iPhone 4. Now, whilst the smartphone world consists of so much more than the iPhone, Apple generates approximately three quarters of profits made from this market: Apple’s move to reinvent an existing design is in itself nothing new, but does this point towards a lack of innovation in the smartphone arena? Have we reached the point whereby there is very limited progress that can be made to change the design of smartphones? Arguably, we reached this point several years ago and most of the innovation has been associated with the software and services of smartphones rather than the smartphone itself. The world is slowly moving towards the Internet of Things, which is the name given to the technology that will allow numerous different types of technologies to interconnect, from refrigerators through to smart thermostats to cars and everything in-between. Can the smartphone continue to evolve over the coming years? For a number of years now we have seen new generations of smartphones offer an incremental upgrade in processor speed, battery life, screen size, camera and networking technologies.

The answer to this is a yes, but perhaps at a reduced pace compared to what we are used to. The industry expects the number of innovative breakthroughs to reduce as smartphone designers push and stretch the boundaries and practical limits of hardware possibilities, such as screen size, battery life and network technologies. Instead, many companies are seemingly coming up with ways and means to make the smartphone obsolete: we are seeing the first experimental products that could pave the way for this in the coming years such as the smartwatch. Other ideas include voice-activated jewellery, ear pieces and spectacles. There are still manufacturers trying to do different things – witness LG and the G5’s expansion abilities, showing above.

Examples of the underlying technologies that will enable these voice-activated items include Google Now, Apple’s Siri and Microsoft’s Cortana. These digital voice assistants are able to read out texts, emails, answer questions, control smartphone or tablet functions and provide directions. Voice activated technology is still very much in its infancy but the technology is progressing at a rapid rate. With the underlying technology moving towards being voice controlled, some in the industry are expecting our mobile devices to move into two different camps: on the one side, we’ll see big-screen devices designed for consuming media and on the other, compact devices designed for keeping up with our diaries, health, fitness tracking and paying for goods and services. Many smartphone manufacturers are struggling to make a profit from the devices – Apple being the notable exception – whereas the software and services running on the device do realise a profit. These are either running on the device itself or plugged into a cloud-based service. The smartphone could move back from being the hub of our electronic device collection to simply another part of it, right back where it was a number of years ago.

One area where manufacturers and software providers believe will see strong growth is that of mobile video: we’ve seen carriers, manufacturers and developers work towards building the necessary tools to allow more and more mobile video to be consumed on our devices. However, whilst average smartphone screen sizes have increased, for many people a display with a diagonal size of between 5 and 5.5-inch is still too small for watching video. The industry is working on flexible, expandable displays that can unroll or fold out to be somewhere around 14-inch when necessary, and will work in all lighting conditions. We are seeing early generation, flexible displays but they are too expensive for the mass market at this time, but LG and Samsung are both working hard on bringing this new technology to the market in an affordable shape. And when this technology has matured such that we are able to fold down a large enough screen to fit into a smartphone-sized device, it is likely to destroy the current tablet market. There may still be a market for tablets, but it is likely to be very different to how tablets work today. One thing is clear: how we use our smartphones is likely to drive how the devices look and perform, rather than the other way around. We may find that our smartphones will become a less usual way to interact with our personal technology but instead may take on the role currently reserved more for our tablets.