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Smartphone innovation in the third decade of the 21st century

March 10, 2020
Mobile devices have come a long way, building on their traditional phone function to become general-purpose communication consoles. In 2020, they’ll get better, faster, stronger yet.

2019 was a year of triumphs and challenges for the smartphone industry. It was a time when manufacturers encountered an almost continual decline of global shipments—but it also marked the introduction of sophisticated new features such as foldable screens and long-awaited 5G technology. Though far from mature, these early drafts are helping establish a solid foundation and direction for smartphone technology in 2020.

From the day they debuted, mobile phones have been evolving. The world has now entered an era of cell phones with superior functions. Over the past 20 years, the following aspects of mobile devices have undergone significant changes:

Style and appearance. One of the most observable changes is the look and feel of mobile phones. They have morphed from their original candy-bar form to the iconic flip phone, which enjoyed great popularity for a long time. Then the slide phone took its place, thanks to its modern design and convenient operation. Next was the touchscreen phone, the most widely available style in the current smartphone market.

Size. Like computers, when mobile phones first came out, they were big and bulky; today they’re small and lightweight. The goal throughout their evolution was to meet the needs and expectations of users—to be more portable and user-friendly.

Function. Of course, mobile phones, starting way back with telephones, were invented for communication. In the past, phones played a single role: they allowed people to make calls. Thanks to the development of networks, technology, and social needs, phones today let users do much more—send and receive text messages and emails, take photos and videos, access the internet, listen to music, and play games, among many other functions. That’s not to mention artificial intelligence (AI) technology, steadily making its way into mobile phones and allowing for things like human-machine interaction—“Alexa, add milk and eggs to my shopping list.”   

Image/camera technology. The photography function is one of the most remarkable changes in modern smartphones. In the beginning, most smartphones had a single, rear-facing camera for photo shooting. Then the smartphone camera came of age: it moved to the screen display, facing the user, then adding video, high-definition, night-mode, and anti-shake technology. All these features together make the photography function the most valuable addition to the modern smartphone.

Stepping into 2020, here are six trends that users can expect to see in the latest generation of smartphones:

More screen. Most smartphone companies have introduced phones with full screens. There’s no denying that full screens have advantages—they give the smartphone an outstanding screen display and stunning visual effects. The full-screen design, to some extent, drives creative development in the smartphone industry.

One important feature of full-screen displays over the past few years is the notch—the black cutout, typically rectangular, at the top of the phone that houses sensors, speaker, and the phone’s front-facing camera. Two new designs attempting to maximize screen space—the water-drop notch and no-notch displays—will most likely be the dominant smartphone design in 2020. Compared with the more prominent monobrow notch, the water-drop notch display takes up less room and can have a screen-to-body ratio of 85%. The no-notch display is new to the market and has the highest screen-to-body ratio, in some phones thanks to a pop-up camera at the top of the phone.

Mobile photography. Super-high-definition cameras are a goal that smartphone companies will continue to chase after, as social media becomes an increasingly important part of modern life. People are spending more time on social media than ever before. Not only do they send and receive written messages through platforms such as Facebook and Twitter, they are also using smartphone cameras to capture and share important life moments, hence the demand for ever-higher photo quality.

In the second half of 2019, smartphones with 64-megapixel cameras were released to the market. This high-res imaging technology will be a big selling point in 2020, with 80% of smartphone companies putting out smartphones fitted with these cameras. The demand for better mobile photography dovetails with the introduction of 5G technology, which allows more data to be transmitted over wireless networks.

Foldable phones. 2019’s CES show in Las Vegas highlighted that foldable technology is on the rise, particularly foldable personal computers. Limited by cost and technology, foldable smartphones have not been widely accepted by consumers. However, with the potential for an even greater screen size, an evolution back towards foldable phones may be likely. Smartphone manufacturers are continuing to innovate around foldable models and the industry expects to see new breakthroughs in the decade ahead.

Artificial intelligence. AI technology will significantly enhance the user experience, improving smartphones’ sensing, analyzing, and interacting functionality. For example, with on-device sensors such as Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, and Global Positioning System technology, a smartphone can create a rich, offline profile of its user and even foresee his or her needs, then make suggestions that will help fulfill them. And through machine-human interaction, the smartphone can collect feedback, continually correcting mistakes so that it’s in lockstep with the user.

As AI gets infused into smartphones in 2020 and beyond, it will also help improve photos, battery life, and cybersecurity.

5G. 2020 is considered the “first year” of 5G communication, which many analysts and observers predict will invigorate and restructure the telecoms industry. 5G technology promises to vastly boost the speed and widen the coverage of wireless networks, and its advent is a huge opportunity for smartphone companies, with hundreds of millions of 5G phones expected to ship in 2020.

Processors. There is still room for improving mobile processors in 2020, to keep pace with smartphone industry trends. More powerful processors mean improved graphics performance. The success of the Nintendo Switch video game console shows that smartphones with high-quality visuals are popular among users. Moreover, modern mobile chips that can support a smartphone’s camera, video, audio, gesture recognition, and other functionality have become mainstream, overtaking simple processor design. Smartphones this year will also see built-in 5G connectivity.

We believe the changes in 2020 will make smartphones better, more user-friendly devices. We are looking forward to seeing smartphone manufacturers come up with new strategies and products that will take on new challenges and opportunities—and satisfy customers’ growing needs.