Not many people know why Google chose to launch the original Google Pixel in October last year. It could have something to do with their development and manufacturing timelines, or it could be a strategic move to tease it all the way from the iPhone 7 and 7 Plus until about a month later, when it was finally revealed.
I think it was a strategic move. Google had no way of knowing what kind of rousing reception their in-house hardware product would have, let alone how it would fare against stalwarts like Apple and Samsung. If the Google Pixel were released before iPhone, sales would have likely been very soft because everyone would have wanted to at least see the new iPhone before picking up a Pixel.
And they’re doing it again this year. The Note 8 and the three iPhones for 2017 have all been revealed, and Google is once again biding its time until it is ready with a possible October launch for the Google Pixel 2 and Google Pixel 2 XL.
But this year’s going to be very different because the design and feature trends of smartphones is shifting, and not subtly by any means. Apple opting for OLED and Face ID are major game-changers. And everyone from Samsung to LG to Chinese smartphone makers is jumping on the dual camera bandwagon.
What’s more, OLED seems to be the new LCD for premium devices. That’s what is allowing for this year’s nearly bezel-less look on this year’s smartphones, and that’s likely to be the new black for digital displays on smaller devices of the future.
The Pixel 2 isn’t going to be vastly different, either. Google cashed in on the camera quality with last year’s model, but they’re still going with the single camera set-up on the rear.
Here’s a look at major changes in smartphone design that we can expect to see on multiple flagship models next year. I follow that up with an interesting (I think so) discourse on the impending death of the smartphone industry.
This is possibly the biggest change, but it’s more relevant to Apple and Google since Samsung already uses AMOLED on their flagship devices like the Galaxy S and Galaxy Note series.
But the problem this year, and possibly next year as well, is one of supply versus demand. Right now there are only four companies that have the technology to produce OLED panels on a large scale, and Samsung and LG Display are probably the only ones with enough capacity to serve Apple at this point in time. Now that Google is also in the fray and Google Pixel 2 is expected to do exceedingly well, the demand is going to skyrocket even further.
I expect it will take at least a couple of years before supply can catch up with demand. These companies are investing millions into new facilities, but you can’t set up an OLED factory overnight. That’s why even Apple had to make do with just one OLED model for this year – iPhone X. We could see the larger Pixel 2 XL come with OLED panels from LG this year, but they’re going to be as capacity-constrained as Samsung.
The good part is that OLED is going to become cheaper as the technology swoops in on the smartphone market. Over a period of time, those savings are going to trickle back to the customer. But don’t expect it to happen right away. For now, the $1,000 barrier for premium smartphones has already been broken by both Samsung and Apple.
This is an interesting phenomenon because it is possibly one of the few times when everyone is copying Apple, and not the other way around. Samsung’s tradition has always been to set the pace for Apple. They did it with several proprietary features in the past and they’ve done it again with OLED. But as for the dual camera setup, it’s clearly iPhone 7 Plus that has created so much buzz around the bokeh effect for portrait photos.
And that’s another cost factor for this year’s flagships because dual camera sensors are obviously more expensive at this point since demand has suddenly shot up. As with OLED, it’ll take a few years for component prices to come down. And who knows, by that time smartphone manufacturers could even be experimenting with camera arrays and what not, starting the price cycle all over again.
Device security is becoming increasingly important, and all the smartphone makers are exploring new ways of securing their devices for their customers. We’ve had passcodes, PINs, secret patterns and other security methods for a long time, but a new trend is emerging in smartphones – the use of personally identifiable traits to grant access. In one word, biometrics. Whether that’s in the form of fingerprint sensing or iris scanning or face recognition, these methods are still evolving.
Although none of them are foolproof yet – and most biometrics systems on smartphones today can be bypassed if you try hard enough – the technology itself is here to stay. Several smartphone brands are now offering fingerprint unlocking along with traditional security methods like PINs, and we’re already seeing the technology cascade down to the mid-range and low-range smartphone market. Several non-premium devices already have fingerprint unlocking, such as the Moto G5 Plus
How secure are these methods? Not very. As I mentioned, they’re still evolving, and even Apple had to address the issues around Face ID security and privacy separately at the iPhone X launch event last week.
In reality, your passcode and PIN are currently far more secure than anything else, because everything else can be “forged” in some way. When Samsung came out with iris recognition on the Galaxy S8 and S8 Plus, a group of German hackers immediately went about breaking it, and successfully, too.
None of these methods are foolproof at the moment, but they could become so in the future. For now, though, we’re still taking a risk if we only use biometrics rather than good old passwords and PINs.
The Bezel-less Look
If you see the majority of this year’s flagship smartphones from the biggest names, you’ll see another trend that’s creeping in – the concept of all screen and little to no bezel. The bezel is the area surrounding the actual display, and that’s disappearing like it’s going out of fashion.
Samsung started the trend with its Galaxy Edge line of smartphones with the curved OLED displays that flowed over the edges, and the company has pretty much maintained that bezel-free look ever since.
Today’s smartphones are not only losing the bezel, but they’re also doing away with the home button, which allows for more screen space on the ‘chin’ end of the phone. That’s not necessarily a new development, since some manufacturers like Motorola have been doing it for some time now. However, it’s only this year that we’re seeing majors like Apple and Samsung go that route, although they’re retaining the physical home button on some models.
Pretty soon, the home button is going to become extinct on all but a few modestly priced handsets.
Yet another trend is to try and make smartphones as water- and dust-resistant as possible. While most phones today are splash-proof, some are even immersible for up to 30 minutes. Again, Samsung took the lead on this with its Galaxy series, and others are following suit.
IP rating is essentially an alphanumeric designation showing the level of dust and water resistance. The numbers go from 0 to 6 for dust, and from 0 to 9K for water. The ratings can be confusing at times, but suffice it to know that IPX6 and IPX6K are currently the highest available ratings for water-resistance in smartphones. Companies like P2i are working on the next generation, a plasma protection level of IPX7 that uses nano-coatings to achieve full water-tightness.
This has long been a pain point for high-end smartphones. The better batteries become, the more intense the workloads also become. With the entry of augmented reality and 3D into the realm of smartphones, more power than ever is required to run these resource-intensive applications.
So, while on the one side you have incremental improvement in battery life, you have leaps forward on the resource drain side.
The biggies of Lithium-Ion battery technology, such as Panasonic and other companies, are working feverishly to create better batteries that can last longer. Companies like Samsung and LG are even looking at solid state batteries for greater safety and more juice.
That said, no battery company so far has come up with anything that’s earth-shattering. There are, of course, experiments being conducted on self-charging batteries, and even on batteries that can be fully charged in 5 minutes. But those technologies are still a long way off from actually leaving the lab and going into mass production.
One of the biggest problems with smartphones today is that they don’t last long enough. A really good battery that’s at least 4000mAh could last a whole day with reasonably intense usage, but that means sacrificing other features because of a lack of internal component space. The only way to get your smartphone to last all day, as of the current scenario, is to use it sparingly.
That’s not an ideal solution by any means, but hopefully we won’t have to put up with it indefinitely. The only problem is the one I spoke about – the proliferation of resource-intensive applications. We don’t know when that cat and mouse game is going to arrive at an equilibrium, so there’s no way of knowing exactly when this tiresome battery life issue will be settled once and for all.
So, what we’re seeing now is a plethora of new trends being set for the future of smartphones. These trends are still evolving, but they point to very clear future directions for the technologies they embrace.
As these technologies are more widely adopted, availability will increase and price will decrease, as is natural with any new piece of engineering.
The only major problem, however, is that consumers are going to be hit with pricing peaks as new technologies are continually added at the top end of the smartphone market. OLED, dual cameras, advanced biometrics and all the things we’ve discussed have already pushed premium smartphones over the $1,000 barrier.
As a matter of fact, that’s one trend that might never change. As new innovations are introduced in the future, we’re going to see recurring price peaks. Foldable phones that fold out into tablet-sized devices, for example, aren’t likely to be under the $1,000 price band. Advanced biometrics like highly accurate face recognition and other technologies are going to be constantly upgraded, and that won’t help the price, either. And don’t forget that 5G is coming up, which means more expensive cellular modem components like the X16 and X20 modems that Qualcomm puts on its Snapdragon 835 and higher processors.
But there’s an upside to that. When these technologies are first introduced, they may be exclusive to high-end smartphones. However, over time, they will inevitably go mainstream, making their way into mid-range and, eventually, low-range smartphones. That’s the natural path of technological evolution. The rich get it first, and if it works, everyone else starts to see it as a standard offering.
That’s the good and bad of smartphone evolution, and we’re going to have to live with that for the foreseeable future. There’s no end to innovation, and there’s no end to enterprising companies taking commercial advantage of that constant innovation.
One last thought before I let you go. Disruption. In fact, that’s the whole point of this article.
The smartphone market is as ready as it will ever be for disruption. That means an upending of prevalent technologies. How will that come about? Nobody is qualified to tell. But we can say this with surety: the smartphone market will be disrupted, sooner or later.
For example, the disruption could come in the form of artificial intelligence making finger inputs obsolete. Just tell your phone what to do, and it’s done. Or it might come in the form of bendable devices that you wear on your wrist. Or how about a tiny little ring on your finger that creates an interactive holograph that replaces your smartphone?
We don’t know what kind of disruption will happen, but there’s already research going on into alternatives for smartphones. Smart wearables once owned the burden of disrupting the smartphone market, but they’ve barely evolved to a stage where they’re self-reliant.
IDC says that the smart wearables market will double by 2021 primarily because of the growth of smart watches, fitness trackers and smart clothing. However, most of these products are dependent on being tethered to smartphones to be fully functional. That’s not a disruptive scenario as much as a symbiotic or complementary one.
It’s difficult to think of a world without the flat, handheld devices that you can do everything on from watching movies to getting responses to voice commands. But that’s similar to the status quo when feature phones were ruling the world, Nokia was the absolute emperor, and Blackberry was the darling of the enterprise world.
The mighty do fall, and Apple and Samsung will take their turns going into the history books as a footnote if they’re not the ones to disrupt the smartphone market. At least Samsung has other lucrative lines of business, but Apple does not. At least, not yet.
In the end, when that disruption comes, it will be swift, only lasting a few short years before wiping out smartphones as we know them. But it will come. And when it does, it will send many of the world’s biggest smartphone brands into a tailspin that can only end in one of two ways – utter annihilation, or a relegation to the poorest of emerging markets.
It’s important that smartphone makers recognize this very real danger that lurks around the corner. The touchscreen smartphone market is already more than a decade old now, and the time is ripe to upset the apple cart. Or maybe Apple’s cart?