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J de Juegos > English Articles Analysis / Industry x Webmaster
[ 10/September/2010 ]
Smartphones | Moving Forward

In essence a Smartphone is a Pocket PC with Cell phone capabilities and features, and although the product is rather young in technological terms the mix has melded very well to the point that it would be very hard to think of one without the other in a way that makes sense to a regular consumer, more so to its user base. Sadly enough, at this point in the life of the product manufacturers seem to be having some trouble figuring out how to move forward with it, as they focus too much on its "fashion" appeal --and Industry mindset-- rather than its feature set.

For what I can see there are three distinctive trends (or functionality groups) that different Smartphone manufacturers are following, with some of them considering more than one concurrently either by having one model or a complete family of them assigned to each (when as a family of products it usually is to cover various ranges of price and hardware configurations): (i) multimedia, (ii) gaming/application platform, (iii) Internet/SNS platform. What sets them apart is the base consumer market that each targets, as well as the hardware and software they require to work.

From a wider point of view the second group can be seen as the jack-of-all-trades type and depending on the applications used can easily take on the roles of the first and third groups. I consider that that is what will eventually happen, right now dealing with those groups individually allows some of the manufacturers to tailor their products in such a way that they can keep prices down while increasing the attractiveness of their mobiles to the target audience by offering specific features such as better cameras, nicer screens, extended battery-life and/or SNS apps. While on the other hand most gaming/app platforms suffer from higher prices and low(er) battery-life but the best hardware (CPU, memory, screen size).

What makes most of the Smartphones of the current generation a fashion focused product is not so much the emphasis given to their exterior design but the speed at which a new generation is launched and problems, advantages, features and user base of the previous one be dammed. Ironically, this success in the "evolution" of Smartphones is also one of the headaches for Google as their Android platform has a hard time stabilizing and standardizing as ever more new versions come out and fragment the market it was suppossed to unify.

That almost manical speed at which new models, for all groups, come out into the market is partly due to its Pocket PC descendancy. Another reason is the loss of the Netbook market for all those manufacturers coming with ever smaller and more powerful mobile/ultra-portable CPUs which are already approaching the so much anticipated SOC (System on a Chip) that will most definitively change the way things work.

In this rather confusing setting, as far as the hardware side of Smartphones go, the appearance of the Tablet has only added to the confusion with a product that rather than be qualified as one "that is..." has to be referenced as one "that isn't...". It's not a Smartphone, not an e-book reader, not a keyboardless Netbook... it's a Tablet.

Right now the real problem with Smartphones is that we can't talk about true evolution in either of the above mentioned categories, or consumer focused groups, everything that is happening falls more in the category of aggregation and not letting the "other company" gain market share. This is the main reason behind all products out there featuring almost the same thing under the hood while improving slightly over the previous version. Not to highlight the fact that I find it rather difficult to improve on something that doesn't naturally require so --in such an extremely constant way.

The "not naturally" from the previous paragraph is most likely the reason to attempt a push for the game/application platform and have it absorb that of multimedia an the Internet/SNS platform. As the PC market has clearly shown there is plenty of space for continuous upgrades if you can create a software-needs > hardware-needs > software-needs cycle. Even if in an unnatural way for a specific product.

As strange as it sounds here is where we find the great advantage that Apple has with its iPhone, where slight model differences aside within the same family, we don't see constant speedy "upgrades" until a true need arises; in the case of it's recently launched fourth gen would be to start the use of 4G carrier technologies. If because of the antenna problems they had with their recent launch they move to the iPhone 5 instead of a sort of iPhone 4 B, they would be making one very big strategical mistake from a commercial and marketing point of view.

As I see it there is a technological inevitability that will eventually have the game/app platform type of Smartphone absorb, and probably improve, on the roles of the multimedia and Internet/SNS models. The current warped evolution of ever more powerful and efficient mobile/ultra-portable CPUs (SOCs and even CPU/GPU hybrids), will soon overcome the few flaws and disadvantages the group has compared to its peers.

In short this will mean nothing else than the disapperance of multimedia and Internet/SNS specific Smartphone models. This is easy enough to notice as the Blackberry, the SNS product by default, starts to move toward offering a more game/app oriented functionality as well. Such models might be replaced by either family members that offer lower prices as well as less advanced hardware (i.e. less powerful capabilities) or the proliferation of at least one Android compatible product and another non-Android to offer a less advanced OS to those not wanting extreme game/app functionality.

In hardware terms there seems that manufacturers have noticed that screen size and phone size matter to most potential users, with three and 3,5 inches being the almost perfect screen size and up to four inches being the practical limit for power-users (or multimedia aficionados) and Smartphones as such. The failure of Dell to be able to market the Streak 5" as a Smartphone being the clearest example of this trend.

Hopefully this also means that companies designing Smartphones will also start to focus on usability rather than just exterior look that can accomodate the "necessary" hardware. Usability meaning what you do with the Smartphone and how you do it. I am not naturally attracted to touch screens but in Smartphones they are a control and interfacing medium that is very easy to get used to, one that becomes second nature quite fast.

Software wise the future of Smartphones looks as confusing and diversified as ever, with the recent announcement that Android 3.0 would also be compatible with Tablets not helping at all. Again, here the advantage Apple has is extremely large since its phones can access a plethora of compatible software from free to payed of everything a user can imagine, while others are restricted to what little a specific company offers or to what is compatible with their hardware and the Android version it holds (which can still be a lot in with Google's mobile OS).

Ironically Google Android was born with the intention to solve the software problem of Smartphones and create a uniformized platform for everyone to work with and work on. As we can clearly see the overall result is partially convincing with the next quarter to six months proving tough on the Android team as well as on whether the platform has a future, needs to be rethought, or some other competing and/or compatible OS can/might take its place.

The problems the Android platform faces right now go beyond its ever more fragmented context, now we also can talk about the legal issue that Oracle has with some patents related to Java that are at its heart. A detail that might slowdown its evolution or stop it as we know it.

Interestingly enough, as Android deals with some legal issues Google starts again to talk about and slowly promote the Chrome OS. Being a sort of browser based and cloud/Internet linked OS chances are that its architecture and design allow it to nicely lower or increase its hardware expectations for a host device. Meaning, it should be able to be adapted without much fuss for next generation Smartphones focused on game/app functionality. It is already seen as a Tablet OS option, that is more than enough as proof of what it can or can't do.

In any case, there are many alternatives that want to gain market already on the table, the previously mentioned Chrome OS being just one of them. Nokia is also readying a new OS platform, Symbian 3, that could be adopted by other manufacturers as a standard.

As things go the only thing missing, so far, in the Smartphone spectrum of products is a device that can be upgraded with essential hardware to offer low, medium or high-end capabilities. I don't belive it should be that difficult to creat a standard motherboard, like the AT or ATX in PCs, with components such as CPU (SOC, or CPU/GPU) that can be traded for better versions. Memory wise Micro SD cards do a great job in extending a Smartphone's capacity to hold data. I imagine someone out there is already trying to figure out the way to make a battery standard that will allow us to switch lower capacity models with higher ones as they become available (since this is one of the biggest problems with Smartphones it would be foolish not to be looking into this).

Considering the acceptance that Smartphones have had by the consumer and the increase in size the market has had over the past months (thanks to the launch of the iPhone 4 and a increase of market share by Android based products it seems many have switched their old regular cell phones) the future of the device is incredible promising, but, evolution wise, it will face some tough moments in the next six to twelve months.

Consumers are getting tired of planning to buy one device for weeks if not months and have it become part of the "older generation" before they have had time to learn everyhing theirs offers. There is also a feeling that manufacturers don't pay attention to the users needs as product after product come out lacking the key features users ask for, namely better battery life and --speaking in general-- more apps and games.

Considering that in most countries most people get their top-of-the-line Smartphone through one --if not two-- year contracts with a specific communications company there is a limit as far as sustainability goes from a consumer point of view; not to forget the one of the communications company itself. As the commercial and production model stands, the so called ultimate product one can acquire today its beyond obsolete when they are able to "upgrade" for a new model. Selling a customer something as the latest one week to have better models appear the next isn't good for the companies involved in the trade either.

There are many ways to move forward but I think that first there is a need to take --just-- one first proper step to start advancing in the right direction: slowdown the speed at which new models appear (or come up with something so it doesn't feel unfair, and too at the speed of Fashion). This will most likely slowdown other parts of the whole industry but for a sustainable rythm of evolution in the near future Smartphone manufacturing companies should avoid hitting the wall that the PC hardware industry seems to have found in their way, when moving at warp speed you have the risk of leaving your consumers in real time way behind. Who in their right mind is right now thinking of going further than an i5? Only those that need it and most definitively not the average consumer that makes up for the bulk of what can be considered the largest of markets if not necessarily the most profitable at all times.

At a rate that puts into the market a new model or family every three months, and at times even each month, for each company involved, there is a point we are closing-in in which consumers will drastically change their buying habbits. There might be a global market to talk about but even it has its limits, and the artificial control-cycle that many companies seem to be putting on the lap of the communication companies is too consumer unfriendly to be considered a --honestly-- viable alternative.

There is no where to go for Smartphones but forward unless someone really comes up with the best replacement device, which the Tablet obviously isn't. Technology wise there are quite a few interesting things on the table that will most definitively help them get to a next level, like Intel's WiDi, new battery types, more efficient power saving systems and more effective power consumption by the latest in processor, memory and screen technologies. As with so many other technology devices as much as the present looks so interesting, it is obvious we haven't seen anything yet.

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