I had a recent question presented to me by a friend that forced me think for a little before responding; “What’s next for the smartphone?” After taking a bit of time to think, I said, I’m not sure… I mean I know there are a lot of things we’d all like to see, but whether they’ll actually happen or not is anyone’s guess (see the image above). If we take a step back and survey the past year or so and look at smartphones and what OEM’s have done and what’s been successful and what hasn’t been, maybe that will help us predict the future a little more accurately.
Let’s look at displays, we’ve already seen companies like Samsung and LG pushing the limits of what’s to big and what’s acceptable. While the Galaxy Note’s 5.3-inch display may be to big for some, it didn’t stop the device from being sold over 10 million times. With the Galaxy Note II, Samsung’s again pushing the envelope a little further, once more testing how large is too large, by upping the screen size to a freakish 5.5-inches. While LG’s Vu may not have sold as well, I don’t think the blame is on the device’s display size, as it probably has more to do with the brand name and the device’s horrible design. Obviously, HD displays that present a high pixel count are one step forward, but are larger displays necessarily the future? Perhaps, but maybe not displays over 5-inches. With the attention Apple’s new iPhone is getting, 4-inches may once again become the “must-have” display size. For a while Android devices made the 4-inch size extremely popular like on the Motorola DROID 3 & 4, DROID Incredible 2, the Nexus S and quite a few others. The thing Apple has going for them, are their legions of die hard fans and the massive adoption of consumers, who feel that whatever Apple does, it’s the right thing, regardless of the fact that other companies may have done it first. If Apple’s next iPhone has a 4-inch display and the public cries with glee, watch how many companies start releasing devices with 4-inch displays again. We’ve gone from 3.5-inches to 5.5-inches and all the way back down to 4-inches, so it looks like the future of smartphones doesn’t rest in the size of a display. Perhaps the way we interact with a display is the answer?
We’ve seen several companies trot out 3-D displays and while they were hot while the movie Avatar was on the silver screen, that fad has all but died, leaving a bad taste with consumers. We know that’s not the future, but what about transparent or flexible displays? While the idea of a transparent display is cool, viewing items in color or in certain lights may not work properly and depending on whats behind your display, it may distort the picture, not to mention, depending on how you hold your phone, people may see what you writing, reading or watching—talk about invasion of privacy—ouch. As for a flexible display, this could actually be the next big thing, we’ve seen the technology work, but can it last over two years, or more, with daily wear and tear, provide the type of quality high resolution of current devices and be cost efficient, that will be the true test.
How about processors? We’ve seen the jump from single-core to dual-core and now, more recently, the use of quad-core processors. What’s next? I don’t think we’re going to be seeing octo-cores any time in the near future, so it looks like we’re going to continue seeing slight bumps in processor speeds. But which processor will lead us into the future? While the industry seems to be moving towards quad-cores, Samsung has decided to make their Exynos 5, a blazing fast dual-core, right after the release of their quad-core Exynos 4. The notion of more cores does make one believe that it should be faster, but that’s not always the case, as we’ve already seen between the Nvidia Tegra 3 (quad-core) and the Qualcomm Snapdragon S4 (dual-core), with the S4 beating the Tegra 3 in quite a few cases and if not, coming up close behind. In the end, when it comes to processors, I think it’s going to be a combination of things. I think we’ll ultimately see quad-core processors win out, as they’ll increase in core speeds and reduce battery consumption. But I also think it’s how the processor interacts with an operating system. We’ve seen how a processor running iOS can outperform a faster processor running Android, it’s all about a precision and execution.
Camera’s have been a integral part of smartphones for a while, sometimes becoming a device’s biggest selling point. For this, I think we need to stop seeing ridiculous numbers of megapixels—unless you plan on taking a photo with your phone, that you’ll print out and cover your 13 x 9 ft bedroom wall, you don’t need a 14-megapixel camera on your smartphone. An 8 to 10 (maximum) megapixel camera is more than suitable for a smartphone, we just need companies to work on the lenses, sensors and f/s numbers. By creating better lenses and sensors, you’ll be able to take better, clearer photos, that will be richer in color. However, if someone can find a way to keep a phone’s thickness 9mm or under, while adding a physically zooming lens, then we may truly have a revolutionary camera phone. Let’s face it, using software to zoom in and out sucks and only makes the photos grainier, we need a real solution to zooming. While I think a physical zooming lens is possible, it may not be feasible in terms of cost and size, so for now we’re probably stuck with slight bumps in megapixels and improved lens technology, sort of what we’ve become accustom to seeing every year from companies like Apple, Samsung and HTC.
When it comes to the smaller details like the battery, audio quality, and cellular radios, I think we’ll continue to see small advances over the next few years, but nothing big will happen for another 10 years. With LTE just now taking off, it’s safe to say we’ll be using this technology for at least another 5-10 years. We’ve seen HTC try to bring us into the future with Beats Audio in smartphones and the majority of people didn’t care and as for batteries, we’ll see some small advancements here and there but nothing major for at least another 5 years, at least when it come to full mass production.
The last big area for innovation is a smartphones is the exterior, we’ve seen Apple use metals like steel, glass and aluminum, we’ve seen HTC use magnesium and polycarbonate and Samsung, who continues to use different types of plastics. I’d like to see these companies act more like Oakley (the sunglasses experts) and try out different types of materials, something like Oakley’s X-Metal, which is comprised of 25 unique metals that make an unbelievable strong matierial. While Apple is probably the closest, having an exclusive contract with Liquid Metal technologies, it would be nice to see other companies step up and create something unique and use it as selling point. These smartphone companies also need to take another page from Oakley’s book and create something unique, the world is tied of looking at the same boring candy bar shaped smartphones. Oakley manages to make hundreds of different pairs of sunglasses, all unique with a distinct style, all the while, sitting on the bridge of a nose, covering eyes the same way on millions of people, it just proves that are literally thousands of ways to get to the same end. Not every smartphone needs to be a square brick. Apple had the right idea with the 3G / 3GS with the curved back, we just need someone willing to push the envelope even further.
So what’s next for smartphones? Sadly, for the next few years, more of the same. We’ll see display sizes continue to fluctuate, processors get slightly faster with integral upgrades, we’ll see batteries last a little longer and cameras get a little better. But until something new and redefining like flexible displays become available and affordable or designers are willing to take a risk with the new materials and radical aesthetic designs, we’re likely in for another few years of boring bricks with only new software upgrades to float us over.