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.
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.
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.
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.
Samsung opens beta on Galaxy Upcycling to breathe new life into old phones – TechCrunch
Samsung announced Galaxy Upcycling a few years back, but has largely been quiet on that front, aside from some stage time at CES back in January. Today the company announced that Upcycling at Home is being opened to beta today for users in the U.S., Korea and the U.K.
It’s a pretty novel program, in a world where consumers are encouraged to scrap their old devices every two to three years for something shiny and new. The program is designed to breathe new life into handsets that might otherwise be tossed in a landfill or stashed away in a drawer.
“We are rethinking how we use existing resources, and we believe the key to upcycling is to enable solutions that transform old technology into something new by adding value,” VP Sung-Koo Kim said in a release tied to the news. “We are committed to integrating sustainable practices into our day-to-day lives, and through Galaxy Upcycling at Home, users can join our journey toward a more sustainable future.”
Specifically, the products can be revamped into smart home devices, like childcare and pet monitors.
The feature can be accessed within the SmartThings Labs feature found in Samsung’s SmartThings App. When enabled, the product can send alerts when things like a crying baby or barking dog are detected. The recorded sound will be sent as part of the alert. Another feature uses built-in sensors to turn on a room’s lights when things get dark. The service will optimize device battery so it can operate for an extended period while detecting these inputs.
UK’s IoT ‘security by design’ law will cover smartphones too – TechCrunch
Smartphones will be included in the scope of a planned “security by design” U.K. law aimed at beefing up the security of consumer devices, the government said today.
It made the announcement in its response to a consultation on legislative plans aimed at tackling some of the most lax security practices long-associated with the Internet of Things (IoT).
The government introduced a security code of practice for IoT device manufacturers back in 2018 — but the forthcoming legislation is intended to build on that with a set of legally binding requirements.
A draft law was aired by ministers in 2019 — with the government focused on IoT devices, such as webcams and baby monitors, which have often been associated with the most egregious device security practices.
Its plan now is for virtually all smart devices to be covered by legally binding security requirements, with the government pointing to research from consumer group “Which?” that found that a third of people kept their last phone for four years, while some brands only offer security updates for just over two years.
The forthcoming legislation will require smartphone and device makers like Apple and Samsung to inform customers of the duration of time for which a device will receive software updates at the point of sale.
It will also ban manufacturers from using universal default passwords (such as “password” or “admin”), which are often preset in a device’s factory settings and easily guessable — making them meaningless in security terms.
California already passed legislation banning such passwords in 2018 with the law coming into force last year.
Under the incoming U.K. law, manufacturers will additionally be required to provide a public point of contact to make it simpler for anyone to report a vulnerability.
The government said it will introduce legislation as soon as parliamentary time allows.
Commenting in a statement, digital infrastructure minister Matt Warman added: “Our phones and smart devices can be a gold mine for hackers looking to steal data, yet a great number still run older software with holes in their security systems.
“We are changing the law to ensure shoppers know how long products are supported with vital security updates before they buy and are making devices harder to break into by banning easily guessable default passwords.
“The reforms, backed by tech associations around the world, will torpedo the efforts of online criminals and boost our mission to build back safer from the pandemic.”
A DCMS spokesman confirmed that laptops, PCs and tablets with no cellular connection will not be covered by the law, nor will secondhand products. Although he added that the intention is for the scope to be adaptive, to ensure the law can keep pace with new threats that may emerge around devices.
Watch Apple’s Spring Loaded event light right here – TechCrunch
Today, Apple is holding a (virtual) keynote at 10 AM PT (1 PM in New York, 6 PM in London, 7 PM in Paris). And you’ll be able to watch the event right here as the company is streaming it live.
Rumor has it that Apple plans to unveil a brand new iPad Pro. In particular, Apple’s tablet could get a big display update as the company could switch to mini-LED displays. You can expect some better specifications as well.
But that’s not all, we expect to see a refreshed iPad mini. Apple could also be ready to release AirTags after many months of rumors and leaks. As always, the only way to find out is by watching the event.
You can watch the live stream directly on this page, as Apple is streaming its conference on YouTube.
If you have an Apple TV, you don’t need to download a new app. You can open the Apple TV app and find the Apple Events section. It lets you stream today’s event and rewatch old ones.
And if you don’t have an Apple TV and don’t want to use YouTube, the company also lets you live stream the event from the Apple Events section on its website. This video feed now works in all major browsers — Safari, Firefox, Microsoft Edge and Google Chrome.
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