There’s been a lot of news this year, from last-ditch Brexit negotiations to significant mobile phone industry changes.
Yet there has only really been one news story since March. It’s the topic that 2020 will forever be remembered (and cursed) for. And it’s had a huge impact on the mobile phone sector.
Our relationship with smartphones has changed forever, with many of us no longer using them for once-ubiquitous tasks like paying for shopping or messaging friends from the pub.
You might think our reliance on phones would have diminished during furlough and two lengthy lockdowns.
Yet people are using their phones more than ever – albeit mainly at home.
For millions of socially distanced, shielding and self-isolating people, mobile phones have provided a literal and metaphorical lifeline.
So what have the major mobile phone industry changes been in a UK market now worth around £6.5 billion?
One of 2020’s less welcome mobile phone industry changes involved the promulgation of fake news around the 5G network.
This led to arson attacks on (usually 4G) cell towers, physical assaults on engineers, and conspiracy theories suggesting COVID vaccines are related to 5G.
Such controversy hasn’t helped the sluggish adoption of 5G, whose rollout has also been held up by a legal dispute about Ofcom’s plans to release further bandwidth.
A spectrum auction is planned next month, which will finally usher 5G into the 700MHz band – boosting in-building penetration, among other benefits.
It’s worth noting that while 5G remains understandably patchy, even 4G is hardly ubiquitous.
Only EE currently offers 4G availability across more than 90 per cent of the UK’s land mass, having increased coverage by almost four per cent since 2019.
Out with the old…
Historic rush hour spikes in data traffic have largely evaporated, with the percentage of mobile data transferred across WiFi rising from 65 per cent to 74 per cent this year.
The volume of SMS and MMS messages sent in 2020 fell by over a third compared to 2019, reflecting increasing use of encrypted messaging platforms like Telegram.
More significantly, 2020 also saw a decline in handset sales volumes compared to 2019.
While that partly reflects widespread job insecurity and dwindling disposable income levels, there’s a sense today’s smartphones simply don’t offer compelling upgrade features.
Until 5G becomes more widely available outside major cities, it’s not going to drive handset replacements, and pretty much everyone who wants or needs a smartphone already has one.
In a nation of 66 million people, there are already 83 million active phone subscriptions. It’s no exaggeration to say the domestic market is saturated.
…In with the new
In 2020, we saw 8K video debuting on mobile devices, while the LG Wing introduced everything from simultaneous portrait and landscape screens to a video camera gimbal.
While Apple and Samsung sold the five most popular smartphone models in the UK this year, a red wall of Chinese companies is encircling them.
This year has seen new handsets by OnePlus, Oppo, realme, Xiaomi, Nubia and Vivo. Some are unashamedly budget-focused, but others offer high-end specs at tempting prices.
Even Huawei’s expulsion from the UK’s 5G network (in response to US pressure and concerns about state-level data spying) hasn’t dented growing sales figures.
Established manufacturers have responded with folding screens (Motorola Razr) and super-sized displays (Apple iPhone 12 Pro Max).
It remains to be seen whether design innovation and outsized screens are enough to rescue a smartphone sector seemingly grappling with a midlife crisis.