Where next for smartphones?

Most of the discussions around the future of smartphones consist of comparisons of existing functionality on other platforms, taking the best bits of competing smartphone models, or hopes for incremental improvements in power/memory/speed. Relatively few discussions take a more creative approach to considering where the next generation of smartphones might come from.

In this post, I comment on the potential challengers to Apple’s smartphone throne and attempt to brainstorm some more creative thoughts about where smartphones might head next in the charge for market share.

A short history of smartphones (or, can anyone knock the Apple iPhone off its smartphone throne?)

Until Apple’s launch of the iPhone in 2007, mobile phones were gradually getting more complex (in terms of features and, unfortunately also, user interfaces), but not making any significant strides, leaving the door open for Apple to grab a significant market share.

The launch of the iPhone was a watershed moment for smartphones – it wasn’t the first smartphone, but Apple’s focus on design, integration of iPod functionality, and its App store (in particular the ability to download games, but also other numerous applications to assist one in daily life and other entertaining, but sometimes not particularly useful programs) re-energized the mobile phone industry and resulted in a tipping point in smartphone sales and development.

Google (with HTC and Motorola) has muscled its way in to the party with its Android operating system (in particular, Motorola’s Droid and Google/HTC’s Nexus1), as well as Palm’s Pre have stirred up the smartphone market somewhat, in particular because these phones promised to be “iPhone killers”. Numerous other smartphones are being launched by the usual suspects, including heavyweights like Samsung, Nokia, LG, and SonyEricsson, increasing competition (and confusion) in the smartphone market.

Many of these alternatives to iPhone are cheaper, offering less functionality (such as Samsung’s M1, which looks like a more basic version of an iPhone, and in Germany is sold on very economic tariffs, with the handset currently subsidized down to a price of EURO 1).

In some cases the competing smartphones excel in one particular aspect (eg, camera, screen, keyboard, etc.) but none seem to clearly beat the iPhone in all categories (ie, a true “iPhone killer”). Motorola’s Droid (running Google’s Android operating system) comes closest to being able to better the iPhone in some ways, but appears to be settling as an equal to iPhone (depending on your brand allegiance), not vastly superior.

CNNMoney.com’s recent article ‘IPhone clone wars‘ (18 December 2009) concluded:

How far the iPhone can stay on top remains to be seen, but historical precedent suggests the iPhone will remain king until a device that really revolutionizes mobile phones comes to market.

This article, in my view, missed a fundamental point – it assumes that Apple will cease to further develop the iPhone, while others get closer to finding an “iPhone killer”. There is however, under one scenario, possibly some truth to this.

Apple is currently rumored to be developing a tablet computer, along the lines of a ‘mashup‘ between netbooks (something that Apple has so far avoided) and the multi-touch touchscreen iPhone. Such a development, which the market is eagerly anticipating, could be captivating the majority of Apple’s research and design capabilities, leaving little resource left to make significant developments to the iPhone.

That said, never write off Apple, especially while Steve Jobs is still around. Recent developments included putting video camera technology into the nano something that, as far as I’m aware, no other ‘small mp3’ player had done.

Still, the fact that Apple’s dominance of the smartphone market is now being challenged, at least by smartphones that seem to be able to do at least as much as the iPhone, and in some areas better – the Droid’s initial marketing made a big deal of this, and Google is about to go ‘all in’ with the Nexus1.

Surprisingly however none of Apple’s competitors have yet taken the chance to make a ‘killer blow’ by developing some technology that was far beyond what the iPhone offered, leaving the door open for Apple to potentially do this.

So what might the next major innovation look like?

Considering combinations of possible hardware/software/memory/power developments some innovative ideas might be:

  • ‘iSight’ technology (video webcam built into iPhone facing back at the user, allowing videophone style calls)
  • Camera improvements to allow enhanced optical character recognition, combined with handwriting recognition software, and image detection (in the style of ‘Google Goggles’ or face detection that might be integrated into other applications)
  • A ‘corporate software development kit (SDK)’ with modular tools to allow companies to easily develop iPhone apps specific to their needs (timesheets, data capture, WiFi integration with own developed systems as one walks around a factory/logistics depot/power station, etc.)
  • Glasses with overlaid ‘augmented reality’ feedback, connected to the smartphone via a bluetooth connection, such that you could avoid having to look at your smartphone screen (key messages/indicators would appear in a head-up display)
  • Greater interactivity with other gadgets/peripherals and the real-life environment, such as using the concept of ‘the Internet of Things‘ – eg, using RFID tags to virtually link physical objects to the iPhone, and register position and movement of either the object(s) or user, and bluetooth to connect to other ‘gadgets’ (such as a keyboard, mouse, printer, beamer, etc.)
  • Integrating/replacing more of the contents of your pocket – smartphones are likely, at some point, to replace your wallet (mobile payments have been talked about for a long time, but maybe smartphones will help mobile payments reach their tipping point) or even your keys (electronic ‘keys’ to unlock your car, house, rental car, rental bicycle, etc.) – while fears exist over security/hacking, this might eventually be safer than physical keys/credit cards, etc. which can be stolen, copied, or hacked.

Six months ago I would have put ‘turn-by-turn’ navigation in this list also, but it seems that with Google’s Google Maps and the Tom Tom App for iPhone this has firmly arrived.

The key is to launch at the right time – not too soon (ie, not before consumer concerns are addressed), but not too late (before competitors beat you to market) – and to permanently keep innovating so as not to be overtaken by others who take your ideas and develop them further

Some of the ideas above may not be ‘ready’ for launch yet – in particular hardware may not be at the right stage to ensure an effective implementation (small enough, fast enough, enough memory, effective enough, etc.).

There are numerous articles of companies launch ideas ‘before their day’, such as Apple’s Newton, launched in 1993 (Apple later had far more success with touchscreen PDA style units when it launched the iPhone/iPod Touch in 2007, after the boom in demand for touchscreen PDAs, starting with the originally named Palm Pilot in 1996), and Sony’s Reader (eReader launched in September 2006, before the boom in eReader type units in 2009).

Each of the ideas above will likely also create new challenges that will need to be adressed, in particular relating to:

  • health (eg, safety of wearing glasses which result in your vision being overlaid with virtual graphics/text, especially if driving), or
  • privacy (eg, impact on society of phones ability to detect faces, or use of and security of data from the RFID tagging of objects around us).

Those who are able to continue to combine creativity with successful execution are winners

For the purposes of this post, I’ve tried to think ahead to more imaginative/innovative concepts, rather than the incremental improvements that are discussed on most smartphone or gadget forums (eg, battery life, screen resolution, network service improvements, camera resolution, wireless syncing, wireless charging, etc.) which will surely also come over time, and create new opportunities for use of the smartphone and software concepts.

Some improvements to the iPhone (like multi-tasking, where third party Apps can be run in the background, or ‘tethering‘ of the iPhone to a laptop, to give the laptop network access over a mobile network), are already possible but not yet turned on (at least in some, if not all markets).

Now that Apple’s dominance in the smartphone market is being seriously tested, it will be interesting to see whether the next generation of the iPhone succeeds in keeping one step ahead of the competition, as Apple was able to do with the iPod.

As I’ve developed this post I came across an excellent post, ‘30 Stunning Apple Concept Designs‘, on Hongkiat.com, which appears to be more design orientated, but also includes many innovative ideas for desktops, laptops, tablet computers, iPhones, iPods, watches, and even rings (one iRing to rule them all?!), and which it says reflect “the deepest wishes of die-hard Apple fans”. Each concept is shown with a funky graphical design, which appears to generally be derived from Apple’s existing product styling.

Of course, one can get carried away with brainstorming ideas for the next super smartphone, as shown by the fantastical ‘xPhone‘ (in German language, but English sub-titles available in YouTube):

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10 Responses

  1. Having just posted this article, I saw a tweet from Mashable about an article ‘Turn Your iPhone into a [universal, programmable] TV Remote’ – another interesting concept extending the potential of smartphone:

    http://mashable.com/2010/01/04/iphone-remote-l5/

  2. Some interesting thoughts here Matt.

    I used to think the iPhone was overhyped, cost too much, and was generally a ‘me too’ device…until I bought one. I was at the residency in London when my prepaid cell phone didn’t work, while all my iPhone classmates were talking on Skype over WiFi. From then, I knew I had to pick one up.

    The thing is, I think Apple got it right the first time, so all these “iPhone killers” are just trying to get to the same place. What Apple did well is get the interface right, and provide a platform for others to create useful apps. I use my iPhone for the calendar, music, email…but also as a currency translator, barcode scanner, games…I’m only limited by my desire to look through the App Store and/or pay for new functionality.

    By getting the platform right up front, I think Apple can spend a really long time coasting on minor tweaks. People like “new” things, but at least to me, I don’t like transferring and re-learning over and over.

    If I were to provide advice to Apple on the future of smartphones, I’d tell them to avoid feature-creep, and rather focus on making the phone have better ergonomics. In the U.S., also making AT&T upgrade their network and allow tethering.

    I see smartphones in a similar manner to HDTVs…people want 1080p, a few HDMI ports, and a remote. Any other features just add to confusion and too many buttons on the remote.

  3. Google launched the ‘nexus one’ today:

    http://www.google.com/phone

    According to Fred Wilson, on his blog ‘A VC’, it ” isn’t much different than the iPhone”, but in the comments he does go one to say that he would recommend it over an iPhone.

    http://www.avc.com/a_vc/2010/01/the-google-phone.html

    Seems that it is swings and roundabouts – looks like nexus one has some advantages over iPhone, but also some disadvantages, and surely Apple will be releasing an iPhone update during 2010 also, so will be interesting to see their first response to the arrival of Droid, Pre, and now nexus one.

  4. I believe that Apple has committed a lot of resources into developing the iSlate, the launch of which I suspect will be 26 January 2010. But there are plenty of synergies between these products so I’m sure the 4th generation iPhone will be worth waiting for. In fact I suspect that the reason that the 3rd generation was only a incremental development was because of the effort going into the iSlate.

    I would also mention their accelerometer feature which has been there since the beginning. I’m not sure if anyone has come close to replicating it. I recently downloaded an app called sleep cycle which uses the accelerometer to detect when I am sleeping lightly in the morning and adjust the alarm clock accordingly so I don’t get yanked out of a deep dreamless sleep state. Very clever.

    I would also add that I see only Google and Apple having a corporate culture that enables real innovation. This is something that takes time to cultivate. Microsoft are certainly not managing to turn their culture around.

    Finally, Apple’s SDK is another stroke of genius. They just make it easy to program great looking apps. They still need to address the hiccups in the app approval process which creates bad publicity from time to time.

    It’s my wish to see the open source community eventually coming out on top and in the meantime I’m happy to see the competition keeping Apple on its toes!

  5. More speculation about the next iPhone, covering a couple of the points I made above:

    http://hothardware.com/News/KT-To-Carry-4G-iPhone-in-April-Report/

  6. Yet more speculation – I like the idea of including an RFID reader:

    http://www.wired.com/gadgetlab/2010/01/fourth-generation-iphone/
    http://www.wired.com/gadgetlab/2009/11/iphone-rfid/

    The benefits suggested in the articles (“for business and scientific applications”) appear to me however to lack creativity or consumer relevance. RFID might give your iPhone the potential to, for example:

    – ‘connect’ with every other object in your house,
    – be used to track which assets you own,
    – be programmed to control other household objects (eg, lights, stereo, cofee machine, etc. as you enter or leave rooms),
    – update shopping lists (or even order for you online and have it delivered) as you throw away empty packaging,
    – play alarms for you to do certain things as you pass near objects (take pills on a certain night as you go to bed, put the bins out, etc.),
    – enable other objects to be be programmed to adjust themselves to the iPhone owner’s preferences (eg, light dimmer in a room, music volume on a stereo, favourite channel on a TV, seat adjustments/positioning in a car, etc.)
    – update your calendar and provide links to background information for (paper) tickets purchased (eg, concert, theater, movie, etc.).
    – sound an alarm when the iPhone moves out-of-range of another object (eg, a set of keys, wallet, or even the lapel on your jacket) minimizing risk of theft of either the phone or the other object.

  7. Lots of of bloggers aren’t very pleased with the new iPad.There was just 2 much hoopla over it and alot blogers got disapointed.You see, I for one see great deal of the awesome potential of this device. Third-party applications for doing music, games, newspapers and magazines and books, all kinds of good stuff, but they failed to sell it very well (aside from the books). It feels kind of undercooked

  8. Technology truly has become completely integrated to our existence, and I can say with 99% certainty that we have passed the point of no return in our relationship with technology.

    I don’t mean this in a bad way, of course! Societal concerns aside… I just hope that as technology further innovates, the possibility of downloading our memories onto a digital medium becomes a true reality. It’s one of the things I really wish I could encounter in my lifetime.

    (Posted on Nintendo DS running R4i SDHC DS QDos)

  9. My ipod device 1G is our primary iPod, Personal digital assistant and even more, also has really been from the time I got it. It still function the most recently released iPod system software, and any app I need it to operate. I’m using it to leave this comment right this moment. I’d personally point out it can be a much more as compared to just an “excellent hobbyist system” — it really is an great iPod

  10. The HTC Evo 4G seems to be a step forward, covering some of the items mentioned in my blog post:

    http://now.sprint.com/evo/?ECID=MA:AB:20100323:4G:EVO:FEAT:300×600

    Will be interesting to see how Apple responds to this.

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