NEW DELHI :
In July this year, research firm Kantar Worldpanel highlighted an increase in life cycle of smartphones in the United States and Europe. In its Worldwide Quarterly Device Tracker, the International Data Corporation (IDC) reported a 6% decline in total shipments in Q3, 2018 and only a 0.8% increase in the same period this year.
These numbers are important as we go into this year in review for the smartphone space. From a technology point of view, the smartphone space has been stagnating and 2019 was perhaps the worst year so far. “Honestly, there was nothing path breaking than the normal percolating of high-end specs in lower segments,” said Faisal Kawoosa, founder of techARC.
The fact that smartphone innovation has stagnated is no secret either. A highlight of 2019’s smartphones were devices with multiple cameras. But the phenomenon arguably gained steam with Apple using two cameras in 2016’s iPhone 7. Of course, there had been plenty of dual-camera phones before that, but they were usually seen as gimmicks more than a useful addition.
“The growth engine so far has been replacement and upgrades which will slow down due to elongating replacement cycle because phones are better and it is tough to differentiate one brand model from another in terms of hardware specs and innovation,” said Navkendar Singh, Research Director at IDC.
It’s tough to differentiate one phone from another because there’s no real difference anymore. Every phone has multiple cameras today, they all shoot ‘good’ photos, they all have dependable (if not exemplary) battery lives and good screens. In a way, the market is facing a different kind of saturation today, one in technology.
The way forward
But the lack of new features and technologies can’t be attributed to companies alone. Alongside cameras, screens and the usual, tech like artificial intelligence (AI), augmented reality (AR) and foldable screens have also made the news.
So, in essence, what 2019 saw was a new beginning and like Android’s early years, it will take time to seep in. And yes, these technologies will likely not improve noticeably in 2020 either.
AI, by definition, is a technology that needs time to evolve. Think about the Google Maps you used to use in 2015 and the one you use today. The app tells you about speed trap cameras today, whereas it couldn’t find the alley next to your home earlier. AI depends on data, and getting AI software in the hands of consumers is the way to get that data.
In its AI blog about the Pixel camera, Google talks about taking a phone camera’s focusing capabilities below 0.3 lux. According to the Institute of Light Engineers, 0.3 lux is the “illuminance that results from moonlight”, and Google says autofocus on cameras fail beyond this point.
“If you can’t find your keys on the floor, your smartphone can’t focus either. To address this limitation we’ve added two manual focus buttons to Night Sight on Pixel 3 – the “Near” button focuses at about 4 feet, and the “Far” button focuses at about 12 feet,” Google added in the blog.
Similarly, foldable screens are only in their first generation today. Samsung jumped the gun trying to beat others to market, but phones like the Galaxy Fold, Mate X and Moto Razr serve as a proof of concept for what’s to come in the future. There’s work to be done here, we need software meant for foldable screens and we, of course, need the screens themselves to be more dependable.
The likeness here is to when optical light emitting diode (OLED) displays first emerged. While they were compared to plasma screens of yore, the big problem was “burn in”, a phenomenon where a screen retains an image that is displayed on it even after it is removed. We all spoke about it when OLED screens first came into being, but you don’t see many complaints now, do you?
Essentially, while 2019 may not have been the best year in terms of ‘new’ smartphone technology, it did lay the groundwork for the future. It’s not a future you will see realised in 2020 perhaps, but it’s the future for sure.