Mobile World Congress 2016: Where are we heading with Smartphones — or where do we need to head?
It’s Mobile World Congress time again. Not only the world of telcos and phone-related manufacturers meet there, but meanwhile it has become a colorful mix of everything technology related it seems. Still, the smartphones or mobile computing devices are in the center of attention.
The decade of the Smartphone as we know it is ending
Almost 10 years ago the iPhone has entered center stage and in fact did change everything in this industry. The revolutionary first iPhone was of course not the first smartphone in the market; in fact it came years after the term ‘smartphone’ had been coined for the first time. What is remarkable about it was therefore not the invention of a new category of device, but the combination of the right mix of technologies at the right time at the right quality or maturity level. It was really the right combination of features to enable a mature set of use cases merged on a single platform comprised of mobile phone, multimedia device, touchscreen and internet access.
All of these together formed a greater whole. However, we have gotten used to rather predictable updates regarding the latest smartphones over the course of the last years. Screens got bigger and better, processors faster, cameras crisper, apps richer and so on and so on. Fair to say though that the quality has drastically increased and the quality of the overall devices and experience is pretty decent when you think what is possible in the existing parameters.
Its about time for something new and revolutionary again
But markets are saturating which can both be observed at Apple and Samsung, the two clear market leaders in the device space. Especially Samsung is under pressure. They are losing market share to the uprising cheaper Asian manufacturers. These competitor devices, while providing a adequate quality and broad feature set, are much more competitive when it comes to pricing. Smartphones are becoming cheaper, fast. Over at Apple, they are not really affected by this due to their unique and unprecedented brand appeal, but their historically stellar iPhone sales and revenue growth rates seem to belong to the past. Well, still they are in a position to envy from all other manufacturers’ points of view. They print cash, since they realize almost all of the profits in this industry.
Generally speaking, looking at the staggering growth rates and decreasing prices there’s two answers: get costs under control or innovate. Or do both in your portfolio. If the strategy remains limited to the ‘old’ phone + multimedia functions + touchscreen + internet access equation it is going to be difficult to maintain the desired and required profit levels.
Ready for a new development cycle?
And as said before, after 10 years of the smartphone as we know it, it is time to move on and expect something new soon. Smaller, offshoot technology cycles occur all the time, but every once in a while — historically, about every 10 to 15 years — major new cycles materialize that completely reshape the computing landscape.
The rise of voice — the decline of the screen
Ericsson for example strongly believes that the age of (touch) screens is nearing its end. This is based on their consumer trends research for this year. According to them, devices centered around a touch screen will be history within the next five years.
Some of the most exciting software breakthroughs of today are happening in artificial intelligence (AI). Rapid enhancements in this field suggest that a stark change in the way we interact with computing devices is not only not an unrealistic assumption but in fact on brink of a breakthrough. Without doubt, using a screen to tap and type information and using your fingers to interact is far from being perfect or frictionless. Interaction based on natural language processing would be a whole different experience and could ease a lot of things. In my opinion it is the natural evolution for a lot of key use cases that the smartphone is involved in.
Atomization of apps, AI-based assistants
When it comes to apps or services as such — the real key success ingredient that has made smartphones take off — I think that they are reaching a tipping point, where they are shifting from being user-controlled to proactively powering a user’s life. Accenture’s Fjord trends research team points out two trends supporting this: “Watch — it listens” and what they call the disappearing of apps. They believe we are in the midst of this already. With a less rigid approach to their products and services, brands that follow this approach, allow their apps and services to be super distributed across various platforms and third-party services, while still retaining their brand identity. Aided by artificial intelligence trends like natural language processing and machine learning, deep learning, etc., services appear to offer themselves intuitively to consumers according to their time, place or situation.
Hardware: smaller, cheaper, faster and ubiquitous
On the baseline hardware side of things the key trend that will impact smartphones or its successors (as well as all other computing devices) is that we enter an era where processors and sensors are getting so small and cheap that there will be many more computers than there are people. There are tremendous performance and miniaturization improvements happening in high-end processors but also in specialized ones, such as GPUs (graphics processors). It turns out these are not only useful for traditional graphics processing, but also for machine learning algorithms and virtual/augmented reality devices.
Virtual Reality getting into the equation
2016 is generally an exciting year for virtual reality. The Oculus Rift, the HTC/Valve Vive and likely the Sony Playstation VR will make their debut. Interesting enough, a lot of the groundwork for advancing VR has come from smartphones (shrunk and more powerful processors whose development has been fueled by the mobile ecosystem requirements) and drastic improvements of sensor technologies that were needed in the mobile ecosystem mix. Closing the loop back, they drive the development and progress in those VR systems mentioned above. Nevertheless, mobile environments and the smartphone ecosystem are also a very promising consumption channel for virtual reality content as well. The “presence” made available by mobile systems will for a while likely lack the quality of dedicated high-end hardware, but the recognition for and adoption of concepts like Google Cardboard are very promising.
In fact, on MWC 2016 Samsung got a whole lot more serious about VR with their Gear VR headset and their Gear 360 VR camera complementing their most impressive ever smartphone, the Galaxy S7.
And what about Augmented Reality?
Augmented reality (AR) will likely arrive after VR because it requires most of what VR requires plus additional new technologies. AR is even more dependent on advanced, low-latency machine vision in order to convincingly combine real and virtual objects in the same interactive scene. That is quite challenging, and even more in a mobile use case scenario. However, this is soon becoming less of a problem when considering this prediction: smartphone processing power to match that of game consoles by 2017.
The next “thing” is inevitable
Many of the futuristic technologies discussed above exist today, and will be broadly accessible in the near future. But what eventually that exact big “thing” superseding the smartphone as we know it today will look like is difficult to predict. Looking at this from the end in 10 or 15 years will probably seem very logical and easy. Benedict Evans put an analogy to this quite right last week in his post “Mobile, smartphones and hindsight” where he looked at the last 20 years of (smart)phone evolution. The one thing that is clear is that there will be a big new step coming ahead.
Every technology has been superseded by something bigger and it’s either one of the technologies pointed out above or a combination of them or something totally different that we just don’t see yet. I don’t believe in the latter though. The level of maturity of the industry and the underlying technologies on the one side but also the maturity of consumer requirements after 10 years of “smart phones” on the other, suggest that its pretty much lying on the table in front of us. And a lot of these technologies and ideas are presented at this year’s Mobile World Congress which is expected to attract 100k visitors for the first time.
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