The evidence seems to be everywhere: innovation in today’s smartphones has plateaued. But is this a sign that the industry has run out of ideas? Hardly. Real world concepts for physical smartphone innovation abound, from discussions about the need to enhance already-existing technologies for solar-powered batteries to the potential of developing built-in speakers that would render Bluetooth noisemakers unnecessary. According to prognosticators of today’s mobile tech industry, though, the smartphone’s next evolutionary step will likely manifest itself in a more efficient integration between established flagship hardware and dramatically improved software.
“Because of the utilitarian nature of smartphones and the fact they’re used for so many things, the next ‘big thing’ isn’t likely to be radical redesigns, but software advances that allow mobile devices to be even more useful than they are,” says Gerry Purdy, Chief Mobile Analyst for Compass Intelligence.
The groundwork has already been laid, with smartphones now starting to assume the role of universal remotes that can control everything from home security systems to kitchen appliances. At January’s CES convention, for instance, Samsung demonstrated their “Smart Home” environment to show how whole home ecosystems can be unified through a single integrated platform and operated remotely through apps.
As impressive as this all looks and sounds, home connectivity is really just the tip of the iceberg, as far as Purdy is concerned. One area at the top of his list of software advances that could set a new bar for smartphone functionality can be seen in Firefly, the proprietary technology found in Amazon’s new Fire Phone. Firefly works by “reading” physical objects, identifying them, and, ultimately, helping users purchase them with a single tap of the screen.
“This is a case of taking existing hardware, the on-board camera, and developing software that provides a service which solves problems and makes things easier,” Purdy says, adding that it’s only a matter of time before all other smartphone manufacturers recognize the inherent mobile commerce opportunities and follow suit with their own spin. A Google or Apple-based app that can analyze a physical object and drive you to a website where you can order it from one of their affiliates? It’s probably inevitable.
The Incredible Growing Smartphone
Mobile commerce opportunities aside, it’s easy to see how the immense popularity of phones like the Galaxy S5, HTC One, LG G3, and others (and not to mention Apple’s rumored plans to produce a new line of iPhones with expanded 5.5-inch displays) could lead manufacturers to the conclusion that bigger is better.
With that in mind, are we headed for a near future where phablets become the new standard and people just get used to to gripping their smartphones with both hands? Not necessarily. Purdy believes smartphones have gotten about as big as they’re going to get — a final determination he thinks manufacturers will arrive at based on pure sales numbers.
“I don’t think we’re going to see as much innovation in screen size,” Purdy says. “Samsung has experimented with just about every screen size you can imagine, and I think they’re finding that buyers are gravitating toward the best overall user experience.”
Modularity as Solution?
The buzz surrounding Google’s Project Ara has naturally lead some to conclude that an age of modular phones may soon be upon us. The concept of being able to order a truly customized smartphone, and upgrading it in the future by purchasing higher-performing replacement parts, seems like a genius enough idea to catch on.
But this is a premature assumption, according to Purdy, who foresees the consumer’s desire to save cost as a prohibiting influence on widespread adoption of these so-called Lego phones. “The problem is, volume manufacturing beats out modularity on cost almost every time. You can always manufacture in volume cheaper.”
This doesn’t mean modular phones won’t find their niche. Purdy suggests that Ara phones may find popularity in vertical markets like hospitals or government institutions, where a higher up-front cost could prove a financially viable option as compared to having to replace entire devices when older ones become obsolete.
“You can see a device like that might be very beneficial in specific markets, as opposed to throwing an entire product out,” he says.
The Pocket Doctor
Yet another area many see as ripe for development involves health and fitness applications. Because most smartphones now come standard with accelerometers and gyroscopes, it’s likely we will see more inroads made toward the development of bands and sensors that work together with existing hardware and apps to monitor the health of the wearer.
Purdy says it’s feasible such apps could monitor things like EKG performance during exercise, even going so far as to send notifications to a wearer’s doctor if abnormalities are found — something he imagines could be both helpful and hindering.
“Health is obviously very important,” Purdy says. “But I think there’s also a very big potential danger of invasion of privacy, too.”
The growing availability and increasing affordability of more rugged smartphones will also play heavily into the marriage of technology and physical activity, delivering more mainstream mobile devices that can withstand exposure to moisture, sweat, and outdoor environments.
“I don’t think we’re going to see popularity to the extent of military rugged,” Purdy says, “but when it becomes inexpensive to include it, it becomes more of a standard feature.”
The Unified OS Scenario
In keeping with this prediction for vast improvements in software that will imbue existing hardware with greater everyday functionality, there’s also the likelihood that operating systems themselves may continue evolving into a more unified experience across a diversity of devices — both mobile and desktop-based.
“The big question down the line is: are mobile operating systems going to continue to be the dominant environment for smartphone users? Are we going to continue to exist with parallel operating environments? For example, [Mac] OS is very different from iOS. Unifying the operating systems could lead to a scenario where a mobile device could be attached to a monitor, keyboard and mouse seamlessly.”
While Microsoft, Ubuntu and others have been making big strides toward making this a reality, Apple has stated definitively it has no interest in doing the same. Whether that’s a case of the latter attempting to distance itself from the former’s activities remains to be seen, but there’s little doubt the majority of users would see this kind of unification as a great benefit to usability.
The Convergence of High and Low End
Despite any arms race smartphone manufacturers may wage in their attempts to bring market the latest and greatest gadget to market, there’s little doubt that low-functioning flip phones will become relics of a not-too-distant past.
“We’ll eventually get to the point where smartphones are commoditized, in the sense that almost everyone will have one and they’ll all be able to do pretty cool things,” Purdy says. He notes that continued technological development will lead to a convergence between high end and low end devices.
“If you look at the automobile industry,” Purdy says, “you’ll see a lot of interesting technologies that were very unique four or five years ago when only Mercedes or BMW offered them. But now you see a feature like automatic parking available in the Ford Focus. Who’d have thought a low end car would have a high end technology feature like that?”
Where the Onus Lies
None of these potential areas of excavation should suggest that smartphone manufacturers won?t still try to best one another by producing devices with superior specs; the pixel counts will likely get higher, and the cameras will likely get stronger. But as hardware innovations slow down, a shift that focuses on taking what’s there and building it out to transform phones from neat little gadgets into powerful, transformative tools could be afoot. The onus is now on developers to snatch up the opportunity and run with it.