Has smartphone evolution stalled?

Has smartphone evolution stalled?

A couple of weeks ago, Samsung unveiled the tenth generation of its Galaxy smartphones via a live-streamed launch ceremony.

The Galaxy S10 product suite unquestionably represents the pinnacle of existing smartphone technologies.

But apart from a fairly gimmicky folding mechanism (something Huawei has also debuted in recent weeks), few revelations were forthcoming.

With smartphone manufacturers typically launching a new range of handsets once a year, genuine innovation and must-have features are few and far between.

Are we at a point where smartphone evolution has peaked? Or could future technologies improve the user experience as much as colour screens and downloadable ringtones once did?

A victim of their early success?

In the 1980s, owning a mobile telephone was a sign of affluence and importance.

By the early 1990s, text messaging offered a welcome alternative to phone calls, and Nokia’s introduction of variable ringtones in 1994 demonstrated consumer desire for customisation.

Skyrocketing sales figures saw manufacturers competing to advance smartphone evolution, at an ultimately unsustainable rate of progress.

The late Nineties witnessed genuine innovations including digital connectivity and the first internet-enabled handset.

Similarly, the early Noughties heralded full colour displays (2001), picture messaging and camera phones (both 2002) and 3G – the start of the mobile internet revolution (2003).

The Apple iPhone’s launch in 2007 was swiftly followed by the introduction of apps, and arguably represented the last great leap forward.

Since then, there’s been endless fettling of Android and iOS devices, but nothing genuinely groundbreaking has happened since 4G’s arrival in 2011.

Indeed, most improvements to smartphone functionality are attributable to software development, rather than manufacturer innovation.

A first-generation iPhone is demonstrably similar to today’s iPhone X, whereas a late-1990s flip phone and its diminutive monochrome screen resemble something from a different era.

False starts and red herrings

There’s been a fair amount of press coverage in recent weeks about the advent of folding smartphones, but these devices are currently punitively expensive.

Consumer appetites for folding phones seem limited, there’s little sign of developer support for each manufacturer’s unique fold patterns, and we currently have no data on durability.

Folding handsets may be a short-lived gimmick, mirroring other recent failures like LG’s modular add-ons, Amazon’s attempt at 3D cameras and the squeezable HTC U11 frame.

It’s as though manufacturers are scratching around for new niches, rather than launching innovations with genuine market appeal, or the potential to improve the UX.

Are handset upgrades still worthwhile?

A Samsung Galaxy S7 owner won’t have seen much in the S10’s launch to persuade them a new handset is imperative.

However, forthcoming technologies might finally make a case for replacing existing devices.

Firstly, the advent of 5G next year ought to transform mobile communications, just as 4G blew away WAP-era 3G data transfer speeds.

Biometric security will revolutionise phone safety, enabling us to conduct secure ecommerce transactions at all times, and protect our homes without needing house keys or alarm codes.

Computational photography should blend multiple images from different camera lenses, delivering SLR-quality images for a generation obsessed with photos and selfies.

Handsets may even contain Li-Fi sensors, replacing interference-prone WiFi with far more localised and high-speed data transfers across less congested bandwidth frequencies.

For now, smartphone evolution does appear to have stalled. But don’t assume today’s devices will still seem contemporary in the mid-2020s.

Forthcoming technologies like LiFi and 5G should ensure a new generation of handsets will flourish in the next decade.

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