So, what is arguably the smartphone industry's newest flagship product has been announced, the Samsung Galaxy S 4. Now it's time to wonder what's next. What hardware features might the Samsung Galaxy S 5 have? And how about its 2014 contemporaries? Bendable or transparent 3D displays? Floating holograms? Fingerprint readers or brain readers? Dual screen? Powerful built-in projectors? Infi-pixel cameras? Software-defined radio. Nanotech-enabled batteries. Massively multi-core processing...
Given the fact that hardware features tend to expand in a rather predictable fashion, there are rarely any surprises. However, there are opportunities for smartphone vendors to stand out in the crowd for a short time at least. Taking a look at some component and product announcements over the past few years points to some of these possibilities. Here are some things smartphone vendors might be working on implementing behind the curtains:
— Cameras and lenses: Whatever happened to optical zoom in handsets? Nokia and Samsung introduced phones last decade with optical zoom. Then fade to black. But get ready for a zoom comeback: Huawei, LG, and others, are expected to get back into the fold. Perhaps we'll see folded optics lenses in smartphones in the next generation of flagships for lots of great video clips of Rover and the kids.
— Storage: room to grow. I've been hearing about the terabyte phone for more than five years. Yes, a terabyte or more of on-board storage memory. The platforms have to support it, but it's coming. Why? For content creation and consumption, there will be a reason, for example, to store lots of great video clips of Rover and the kids
— Haptics: I've never felt the need for tactile feedback, but that's me. I've learned to never judge the market based on "I." There are some interesting improved haptic APIs coming for more realistic gaming and new types of interfaces and communications. Reach out and touch someone, for real.
— Biometrics: Only a few smartphones have fingerprint readers. A few feature facial recognition. More biometric-based recognition is coming using fingers and eyes, voice and looks.
— Resolutions: 1080p is it for the time being. A move to ultra high definition would make little sense in a pocketable device. The law of diminishing returns has been reached.
— Screens sizes: a matter of consumer taste. Screens might grow a fraction of an inch, but soon after that they enter the tablet market. Then again, it could be that the tablet becomes the new smartphone.
— Tougher phones: Gorilla Glass aside, handsets are still too fragile. Drop your keys, you simply pick them up. Drop your phone, you scoop up the pieces and hope it powers up again. Nonetheless, expect smartphones to become only marginally tougher with such improvements as water-resistant coatings. Handset makers are likely looking at impressive new materials such as graphene, but wide implementation is still some years off. Anyway, it seems that consumers in developed markets never paid too much attention to toughness given the fact that purchase upgrade cycles are around two years and significantly less in some countries. A cracked phone only accelerates the inevitable. And third-party accessories have been covering this area quite well.
— Connectivity: 5G is still a long, long way off. The 2G/3G/4G/WiFi world phone will be the standard at the high-end with LTE at around 100mps. Network providers will continue to work on the other side of the equation with WiFi becoming a more important operator element.
— Battery: There are battery breakthroughs coming according to scientific papers, but for now, it looks like lithium-ion will continue to be the norm. You can read up on some interesting demos using, for example, nanotech-based materials for batteries.
— Processors: Quad core and more. Samsung's clever 4x4 technology could set the standard for power-efficient smartphones, coaxing more use out of the given juice. More powerful mobile graphics processors will give living-room game consoles a run for their money.
— Speakers: There are some interesting surround-sound Bluetooth speaker accessories around. More of this technology will find its way into smartphones.
— Form factors: The world will remain flat. Unfortunately there's little chance of bendable, foldable, stretchable, transparent devices coming to market anytime soon. The component videos we've seen of flexible displays are neat, but until everything else in the device can flex as well, this song remains the same.
— User interfaces: Non-touch input features are making for more natural user interfaces. PrimeSense, the company behind the Kinect, recently introduced their technology for mobile devices to support 3D gesture input. Leap Motion and competitors could make 3D gesture input a norm. In addition, sensors will continue to be used in clever and contextual ways. Get ready for more non-touch.
— The software & services experience: Expect more of following: HTML5, WebRTC, smoother cloud storage, sensor friendly apps, really useful NFC-based services, home integration, laptop replacement
— Modular: The number of sensor-filled accessories will expand enabling a customized experience for the user. This could be the killer trend over the coming two years.
— Price: Flagship devices are expensive, but in a historical context, are absolute bargains. Top phones will continue to retail in the $700 range (unsubsidized), making a difficult entry point for many consumers around the world. Yet the good news is, the trickle-down effect will put the power of what would once have been considered a supercomputer into the hands of millions of first time smartphone owners, connecting them to the internet and opportunity.
The bottom line is, the arrow still points up. There's still a lot to think forward to.
Samsung Galaxy flagship screen sizes from March 2010 to March 2013.
Marching uphill in a straight line makes predictions rather easy:
For those looking to network with Chinese mobile players and understand the market: the kind producers of the Global Mobile Internet Conference 2013 and the extended "G-Trip" contacted me to share a 25% discount code with any readers who might wish to attend. You can register your attendance at http://beijing.thegmic.com/register/ and paste in the following code into the "discount code" section: GMIC-VQ9596MT
GWIC 2013. Be there. And see see Tiananmen Square.