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The Smartphone Wars: Where to now?

Whether you are an Android fanboy or hater, there is one thing everyone has to acknowledge. Android has been the operating system which has allowed the leaps and bounds we have seen in smartphone hardware. From smartphones with a single core processor and HVGA (320 x 480 pixels) displays, to octa-core devices with Full HD (1080 x 1920 pixel) handsets in four years, Android can handle pretty much handle every resolution and hardware combination a manufacturer seeks to throw at it.

If not for Android, hardware would not have ramped up this fast. Android’s closest rival in terms of supported hardware wars is Microsoft’s Windows Phone. But the Windows Phone needs to release a new version to support the latest hardware. BlackBerry 10 seems to be limited to HD displays. It remains to be seen whether Apple’s iPhone will make the transition to HD. With smartphone hardware improving markedly each year, the inevitable result is that it will plateau.

When dual core processors hit the scene two years ago, I felt they dramatically improved the smartphone experience. After that, I am starting to appreciate the additional increases in speed less and less. In terms of display resolution, I am sure some manufacturer will offer a WQXGA (1600 x 2560) smartphone before long. But really, with each bump up on the resolution scale, the returns felt by the consumer are less and less. I really think most people cannot tell the difference between HD (720 x 1280 pixel) display and Full HD on a 5-inch display in day to day use. Higher resolutions simply force the graphics chip in the phone to work harder and eat up more juice, for little if any benefit.

A fair number of people do buy based on the specifications sheet. With each passing year though, smartphone manufacturers’ new flagship phones will seem less and less appealing as mid-level offerings start to really get more than good enough. When the lower end devices and the top of the line models, start looking pretty much the same to the average Jane or Joe, people will stop caring about getting the latest and the greatest. It happened to desktops and laptops. In time it will happen to smartphones, too.

So what is left to wow us for the remainder of 2013 and 2014, and compel us to fork out hard earned cash for the smartphone manufacturers’ latest offerings?

The Apple iPhone 5 camera was one of the top smartphone cameras in 2012, but has now fallen behind the camera on the Galaxy S4. Even a conservative company like BlackBerry has seen it necessary to incorporate a good camera in its latest products, and the Z10 camera is pretty impressive. It is not to say that the iPhone 5 camera is a good one. The competition simply has gotten better.
The Apple iPhone 5 camera was one of the top smartphone cameras in 2012, but has now fallen behind the camera on the Galaxy S4. Even a conservative company like BlackBerry has seen it necessary to incorporate a good camera in its latest products, and the Z10 camera is pretty impressive. It is not to say that the iPhone 5 camera is a good one. The competition simply has gotten better.

Source: GSM Arena Camera Compare Tool

1. Better image quality. The camera is an important function which has been assumed by the smartphone. Each year sees improved cameras with more features like HDR, Panorama capability and Burst Mode. But there is still areas for improvement in the most basic feature, still image quality.

2. Optical Image Stabilization. A lot of smartphones implements some sort of stabilization technology, using software to compensate for natural shaking of the hand. 2013, saw the use of hardware-based solution. Optical Image Stabilization uses the phone’s gyroscope to detect the motion of the phone. The whole optical assembly moves in the opposite direction of any detected movement, to cancel out the movement. The end result is sharper images and improved low light images. The benefits are even more impressive in video recording. The Nokia Lumia 920 and HTC One introduced Optical Image Stabilization to smartphones. I suspect it will become standard equipment on the next generation of flagship smartphones.

3. Red-eye reduction. I am a bit surprised that we have not seen smartphones with Red-eye reduction technology yet. The Red-eye effect can be removed or reduced by a series of short low-power flashes, or a continuous piercing bright light triggering the pupil to contract, before activating the main flash and snapping the picture.

4. LTE-Advanced. LTE-Advanced is already being deployed in smartphones for release in Korea. Basically, this means faster connectivity, about twice as fast as current LTE technology. Taking advantage of this new technology will require that the carriers upgrade their existing LTE networks.

5. Unbreakable phones. Some people think that the flexible display are being built so that we can fold a mobile phone or tablet into a more compact package like a handkerchief. Really, the purpose behind the flexible display is to make it more pliable and give it more resistance to damage from drops, similar to the properties that make plastic desirable.

At the same time, more exotic case technology is being developed. Many consumers are not fond of plastic, and aluminum is not too resistant to impact. Apple and HTC are mulling over the use of liquid metal and Samsung of Carbon Fibre. Motorola has already released several smartphones with Kevlar integrated into the case, and is continuing on this path. On a different front, Sony has made great strides in water and dust resistance without making the phone look like an Armadillo.

Flexible displays, impact resistant materials and water resistant casing will create nearly unbreakable phones.

Of course, we will see faster processors and more RAM, but this is now at the point of diminishing returns. We would all like to see vastly improved battery life, but that is probably something for 2015 or beyond. For the next year or so, I think the four areas listed above are where smartphone manufacturers will focus on in an attempt to again pry out hard earned dollars from your pocket.

Is there another new piece of hardware technology you think we will see in smartphones next year?