THE SMARTPHONE MARKET has hit a bit of a lull. Sure, they've got bigger and faster (that's what she said) but it’s been hard to get really excited about new phones recently beyond the fact that, well, they're new.
But what if we look further into the future, say 2020 or 2021, and devices like the iPhone 9 or Galaxy S9? What will hit the market then to get excited about? Mind-control text capabilities? Full 360-degree video filming? Bendable screens? Week-long battery life?
Well, let's start with the battery. Sadly, week-long battery life on a smartphone seems unlikely even by 2020, as Dr Kevin Curran, reader in Computer Science at Ulster University and a senior member of the IEEE, explained to the INQUIRER.
"On average, we only see improvements in capacity of six per cent per annum. So by 2020 we can only really expect a 25 per cent improvement in battery life,” he said.
However, while 25 per cent may sound good, Curran warned that these improvements tend to be offset by the fact the battery has to work harder as devices get more powerful and have higher density pixel displays.
Headlines proclaim major breakthroughs with battery technology, but Curran believes it’s unlikely that battery life will improve significantly, although there is work being done to change this.
“There are promising breakthroughs with regards to lithium-sulphur, supercapacitors, hydrogen fuel cells, solid state batteries and others, but history should tell us to be cautious about any new dramatic claims in having solved the problem of packing energy into a battery,” he said.
OK, so forget battery life. Surely there must be other new and exciting features to look forward to? Well, one technology is thermal imaging.
This was actually unveiled recently on the Cat S60 (pictured below), and Curran believes that other manufacturers will add this to their phones in time.
“This allows for a multitude of use cases, including detecting heat loss around windows and doors, spotting moisture and missing insulation, identifying over-heating electrical appliances and circuitry, and seeing in complete darkness,” he explained.
Dual-lens rear cameras, such as that included on the Huawei P9, could also become standard, taking smartphone photography to the next level.
“This additional sensor allows much better control and depth in the photos you can take,” Curran added.
Meanwhile, analyst house CCS Insight has predicted that wireless charging will be standard by 2020, given that Apple is likely to include this technology in the iPhone 7. That should save scrabbling around for charging points.
Biometric technology on smartphones is also set to improve with fingerprint scanners on most devices, not just high-end handsets like the iPhone 6 and iPhone 6S.
More interestingly, though, is that ‘keystroke dynamics’ biometrics will become standard.
“This is where keystroke logging can be analysed. The time to get to and depress a key, and the time the key is held down, can be very specific to a person, regardless of how fast they are going overall,” explained Curran.
The way in which we hold phones will also become integral to this growing use of biometrics, and it is expected that face recognition will be widely deployed on smartphones, just as it is becoming common on laptops.
The increased ability for smartphones to gather more data could also make them more adept at allowing apps on phones to perform “medical diagnoses and triage patients”, according to CCS.
“Mobile apps use deep learning technologies and cloud computing to become the first point of contact for referrals to medical professionals. They ease pressure on healthcare responders and cut waiting times,” the analyst house said.
The use of smartphones for basic health data is proving popular, so it seems feasible that more advanced insights could become commonplace.
Projecting the future
Another technology that could become standard is built-in projectors. Such capabilities are slowly being added to tablets, like the Lenovo Yoga Tab 3 Pro, and Curran believes this could be added to phones too.
“I see no reason why smartphones will not ship with this useful function. It allows you to 'carry around a built-in large screen' provided you can project onto a nearby wall,” he said.
However, the cost of adding all these new features could put some manufacturers off and create a clear split between top-tier phones offering everything, and mid-tier devices that do not.
Finally, what about the size and shape of smartphones? Well, as CCS noted, free-form display technology, such as that unveiled by Sharp in 2014, could let phones break free from the rectangle shape, although any such devices are likely to remain niche offerings for some time.
Realistically, though, we’ll have to accept that the smartphone has pretty much reached maturity. “I am afraid the smartphone has indeed reached its final form factor," said Curran.
"Essentially, if we fall into a coma and wake up in 20 years, we will still know what a smartphone looks like when someone places it in our hands." µ
Plus IoT factories and a pricey Pixel pouch
It's all fun and games until someone loses their rent
Speeding this way from the Spring
It's generating lower margins than smart-speaker rivals from Amazon and Google