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The top smartphone trends to watch in 2019 – TechCrunch

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This was a bad year for the smartphone. For the first time, its seemingly unstoppable growth began to slow.

Things started off on a bad note in February, when Gartner recorded its first year-over-year decline since it began tracking the category. Not even the mighty Apple was immune from the trend. Last week, stocks took a hit as influential analyst Ming-Chi Kuo downgraded sales expectations for 2019.

People simply aren’t upgrading as fast as they used to. This is due in part to the fact that flagship phones are pretty good across the board. Manufacturers have painted themselves into a corner as they’ve battled it out over specs. There just aren’t as many compelling reasons to continually upgrade.

Of course, that’s not going to stop them from trying. Along with the standard upgrades to things like cameras, you can expect some radical rethinks of smartphone form factors, along with the first few pushes into 5G in the next calendar year.

If we’re lucky, there will be a few surprises along the way as well, but the following trends all look like no-brainers for 2019.

5G

GUANGZHOU, CHINA – DECEMBER 06: Attendees look at 5G mobile phones at the Qualcomm stand during China Mobile Global Partner Conference 2018 at Poly World Trade Center Exhibition Hall on December 6, 2018 in Guangzhou, Guangdong Province of China. The three-day conference opened on Thursday, with the theme of 5G network. (Photo by VCG/VCG via Getty Images)

Let’s get this one out of the way, shall we? It’s a bit tricky — after all, plenty of publications are going to claim 2019 as “The Year of 5G,” but they’re all jumping the gun. It’s true that we’re going to see the first wave of 5G handsets appearing next year.

OnePlus and LG have committed to a handset and Samsung, being Samsung, has since committed to two. We’ve also seen promises of a Verizon 5G MiFi and whatever the hell this thing is from HTC and Sprint.

Others, most notably Apple, are absent from the list. The company is not expected to release a 5G handset until 2020. While that’s going to put it behind the curve, the truth of the matter is that 5G will arrive into this world as a marketing gimmick. When it does fully roll out, 5G has the potential to be a great, gaming-changing technology for smartphones and beyond. And while carriers have promised to begin rolling out the technology in the States early next year (AT&T even got a jump start), the fact of the matter is that your handset will likely spend a lot more time using 4G.

That is to say, until 5G becomes more ubiquitous, you’re going to be paying a hefty premium for a feature you barely use. Of course, that’s not going to stop hardware makers, component manufacturers and their carrier partners from rushing these devices to market as quickly as possible. Just be aware of your chosen carrier’s coverage map before shelling out that extra cash.

Foldables

We’ve already seen two — well, one-and-a-half, really. And you can be sure we’ll see even more as smartphone manufacturers scramble to figure out the next big thing. After years of waiting, we’ve been pretty unimpressed with the foldable smartphone we’ve seen so far.

The Royole is fascinating, but its execution leaves something to be desired. Samsung’s prototype, meanwhile, is just that. The company made it the centerpiece of its recent developer conference, but didn’t really step out of the shadows with the product — almost certainly because they’re not ready to show off the full product.

Now that the long-promised technology is ready in consumer form, it’s a safe bet we’ll be seeing a number of companies exploring the form factor. That will no doubt be helped along by the fact that Google partnered with Samsung to create a version of Android tailored to the form factor — similar to its embrace of the top notch with Android Pie.

Of course, like 5G, these designs are going to come at a major premium. Once the initial novelty has worn off, the hardest task of all will be convincing consumers they need one in their life.

Pinholes

Bezels be damned. For better or worse, the notch has been a mainstay of flagship smartphones. Practically everyone (save for Samsung) has embraced the cutout in an attempt to go edge to edge. Even Google made it a part of Android (while giving the world a notch you can see from space with the Pixel 3 XL).

We’ve already seen (and will continue to see) a number of clever workarounds like Oppo’s pop-up. The pin hole/hole punch design found on the Huawei Nova 4 seems like a more reasonable route for a majority of camera manufacturers.

Embedded Fingerprint Readers

The flip side of the race to infinite displays is what to do with the fingerprint reader. Some moved it to the rear, while others, like Apple, did away with it in favor of face scanning. Of course, for those unable to register a full 3D face scan, that tech is pretty easy to spoof. For that reason, fingerprint scanners aren’t going away any time soon.

OnePlus’ 6T was among the first to bring the in-display fingerprint scanner to market, and it works like a charm. Here’s how the tech works (quoting from my own writeup from a few months ago):

When the screen is locked, a fingerprint icon pops up, showing you where to press. When the finger is in the right spot, the AMOLED display flashes a bright light to capture a scan of the surface from the reflected light. The company says it takes around a third of a second, though in my own testing, that number was closer to one second or sometimes longer as I negotiated my thumb into the right spot.

Samsung’s S10 is expected to bring that technology when it arrives around the February time frame, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see a lot of other manufacturers follow suit.

Cameras, cameras, cameras (also, cameras)

What’s the reasonable limit for rear-facing cameras? Two? Three? What about the five cameras on that leaked Nokia from a few months back? When does it stop being a phone back and start being a camera front? These are the sorts of existential crises we’ll have to grapple with as manufacturers continue to attempt differentiation through imagining.

Smartphone cameras are pretty good across the board these days, so one of the simple solutions has been simply adding more to the equation. LG’s latest offers a pretty reasonable example of how this will play out for many. The V40 ThinQ has two front and three rear-facing cameras. The three on the back are standard, super wide-angle and 2x optical zoom, offering a way to capture different types of images when a smartphone camera isn’t really capable of that kind of optical zoom in a thin form factor.

On the flip side, companies will also be investing a fair deal in software to help bring better shots to existing components. Apple and Google both demonstrated how a little AI and ML can go a long way toward improving image capture on their last handsets. Expect much of that to be focused on ultra-low light and zoom.

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Apple returns to No. 1 as global smartphone shipments grapple with supply chain concerns – TechCrunch

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Supply chain issues continue to have a major impact on smartphone manufacturers per newly released figures from analyst firm Canalys — global shipments grew only 1% year over year in the final quarter of 2021. The numbers come on the tail of Q3 reports, which saw an overall drop of 6%, citing similar issues over component supply.

The firm also factors in a resurgence of COVID-19, courtesy of the omicron variant, which has sent a number of locals into shutdown reminiscent of the pandemic’s early days roughly two years ago. Canalys notes that this impact is greatest among the smaller manufacturers in the market, who have had the greatest issues finding new suppliers.

“Component manufacturers are eking out additional production, but it will take years for major foundries to significantly increase chip capacity,” the firm’s Mobility VP Nicole Peng said in a statement tied to the new figures. “Smartphone brands are already innovating to make the most of their circumstances, tweaking device specs in response to available materials, approaching emerging chipmakers to secure new sources for ICs, focusing product lines on the best-selling models and staggering new product releases.”

Image Credits: Canalys

Larger companies remain less impacted overall by shortages and bottlenecks. The quarter also saw Apple return to the overall top spot in the global market, after three quarters away. The company’s rise is attributed to the success of the iPhone 13 and an extremely solid performance in Mainland China — the world’s largest smartphone market.

Apple’s overall marketshare ticked up from 12% to 23% of the market since last quarter. The previous drop owed in part, to the company’s trouble meeting demand in a number of regions in recent quarters.

“Apple’s supply chain is starting to recover, but it was still forced to cut production in Q4 amid shortages of key components and could not make enough iPhones to meet demand,” says analyst Sanyam Chaurasia. “In prioritized markets, it maintained adequate delivery times, but in some markets its customers had to wait to get their hands on the latest iPhones.”

Samsung, meanwhile, dropped to second, from 23% to 20% of the total market. Chinese manufacturers Xiaomi, Oppo and Vivo rounded out the top five for Q4.

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Block’s Cash App adopts Lightning Network for free bitcoin payments – TechCrunch

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Late last year, Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey stepped down from his position in order to give his full attention to his other company Square, now called Block, which had become increasingly invested in blockchain technology and cryptocurrency — just like Dorsey himself. Now we’re starting to see the results of Block’s embrace of crypto, as this morning Cash App announced it’s integrated with the Lightning Network, allowing its U.S. users to send bitcoin for free to anyone worldwide.

The feature had been slowly rolling out to Cash App customers before today, but Cash App had not yet made a formal announcement. The company says the rollout is expected to complete over the “coming weeks,” reaching all U.S. Cash App customers.

Once live, Cash App users will be able to send bitcoin internationally to any external compatible wallet, including those for family or friends or a self-managed wallet, like Chivo Wallet, BlueWallet, or Muun Wallet, for example. Users will also be able to send bitcoin to any merchant that accepts Lightning Network payments, with zero fees. While this isn’t yet a mainstream activity, a few merchants have begun to accept Lightning payments, allowing customers to do things like order a pizza over the Lightning Network or buy gift cards.

The Lightning Network’s integration into Cash App could also help to empower the growing creator economy, as fans could send bitcoin to show their support for an individual creator or cause if they accepted Lightning payments. 

Cash App explains the advantages of this system, noting that typical Bitcoin network transactions can take some time to process and see higher fees, compared with Lightning Network — whose name is meant to convey its speedier capabilities. Its transactions also take place independently of the blockchain (off-chain), which helps to reduce the fees, time, and energy usage that would otherwise be involved. But the Lightning Network will still benefit from the blockchain’s technology and decentralization, as the transactions taking place on the network are later consolidated and recorded to the main Bitcoin blockchain.

Dorsey himself had demonstrated interest in the Lightning Network, tweeting back in 2019 that it was a “cool example” of the experimentation taking place among #BitcoinTwitter users. More recently, Block’s bitcoin-focused company, Spiral, presented its Lightning Development Kit (LDK) which offers a way to easily integrate bitcoin payments into any application. The new Lightning integration on Cash App is also powered by Spiral’s LDK — and Cash App is also the first and largest payments app to integrate with LDK at this time, the company notes.

The rollout of LDK is also an example of Block’s strategic vision in action, where one arm may build the tools that are adopted by other Block-owned businesses.

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Kenyan low-cost ISP Poa Internet secures $28 million in round led by AfDB-backed Africa50, plans to link region with cheap, limit-free connectivity

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In 2020, Africa50, an infrastructure financier backed by the Africa Development Bank (AfDB) Group and a good number of African governments, hosted an innovation challenge that sought affordable and reliable solutions for last-mile internet connectivity across the continent. A proposal by Poa Internet, a Kenyan startup beat 673 others from across the world as a result of which it was added to Africa50’s investment pipeline in addition to winning a cash prize.

Slightly over one year after the win, the internet service provider (ISP) has received $28 million in a Series C funding round led by Africa50, bringing the total amount it has raised to date to $36 million. Also participating in the latest round was Novastar Ventures, one of the firm’s earliest backers.

Poa plans to use the new funding to grow its reach, first across Kenya then progressively to other countries in the continent.

“We are focused on Kenya at the moment, but the problem we’re solving is continent-wide. And for us, it’s not just about getting people some connectivity. Our aim is to get a lot of people online and to give them a meaningful internet experience like the ability to stream videos, without worrying about how much data they’re consuming,” Poa Internet’s CEO and founder, Andy Halsall, told TechCrunch.

Poa Internet currently serves over 12,000 customers (homes and small businesses) in Nairobi’s low and middle-income neighborhoods, and tens of thousands more through its street Wi-Fi connections. The startup has laid out its fiber network in neighborhoods that are typically not the first target markets for its competitors like Safaricom Home by East Africa’s biggest telco Safaricom, Faiba by Jamii Telecommunication Limited and Zuku.

Poa Internet founding team from left to right: Mike Puchol (CTO), Andy Halsall (CEO), Chris Rhodes (COO) and DJ Koeman (CBDO). Image Credits: Poa Internet

Poa Internet charges its customers a monthly fee of about $13, which is half the market rate, giving it a competitive edge. Its customers also have unlimited data usage, another aspect that makes their products attractive to internet users in the country, where major ISPs offer monthly subscription bundles with data caps.

The startup has also set up Wi-Fi hotspots in public areas, where users pay about $0.18 for 1 GB of data, 10 times cheaper than the country’s telcos charge for a similar bundle of non-expiring internet.

“Our internet speeds are 4mbps, which is fast enough for video, because everyone wants to stream Netflix, use YouTube, download movies and make video calls. So, we’ve designed our service to be fast enough to deliver video, but most importantly, our price is a winning factor,” said Halsall.

“Our primary focus is to get the price as low as possible and to operate in the communities that don’t have fiber connectivity or are unlikely to get fiber. Therefore, we’re not really going to compete really against anyone because we are going after a market sector that is not well served.”

Affordability remains one of the main roadblocks to internet access across the continent and Poa Internet service has been trying to solve this puzzle since it entered Kenya in 2015.

Africa, and more narrowly sub-Saharan Africa, has the most expensive internet prices in the world, and this negatively impacts on the continent’s ability to grow its digital economies and to adapt to situations like the Covid pandemic. The pandemic’s containment measures, for instance, required most people to work from home and for students to continue learning online — but this remained impractical in most countries across the continent due to the lack of necessary gadgets and internet connectivity, partly due to underdeveloped infrastructure and pricing.

Benefits of affordable data and a more connected continent are massive in that as more people get connected sectors such as e-commerce and e-learning will experience a take-off.

There were 303 million people, which is less than a third of the population, connected to the mobile internet according to the 2021 GSM Association, an industry organization representing mobile operators, mobile economy report. This figure is expected to grow to about 40% of this population by 2025. However, while mobile internet contributes a great deal in getting people online, as Halsall hinted earlier, the experience of limited connectivity is incomparable to freedom that comes with a limitless connection.

Poa Internet currently serves homes and small businesses in Nairobi’s low and middle-income neighborhoods, and tens of thousands more through its street Wi-Fi connections. Image Credits: Poa Internet (Brian Otieno)

“Poa has been instrumental in bridging the needs of last- mile connectivity, and their ultra-low-cost solutions can be used to address the significant connectivity gaps in Kenya and across the continent as a whole. This is particularly important at a time when societies and economic activities are increasingly becoming digitized as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic,” said Africa50 managing director and head of infrastructure investments at Africa50, Raza Hasnani.

Africa50 currently has 31 shareholders including the AfDB, the Central Bank of West African States (BCEAO), Bank Al-Maghrib (the Central Bank of the Kingdom of Morocco, and 28 African countries.

“Increasing access to reliable and affordable internet connectivity is strongly aligned with the key pillars of Africa50’s strategy, and we are excited to be part of this high impact journey and to support Poa’s growth in Africa,” said Hasnani.

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