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Key Trends in Flagship Smartphones - An Evolution Before the Revolution

With anticipation for MWC Barcelona beginning to build, we here at Futuresource Consulting are reflecting on the major trends that drove the smartphone market in 2018. Despite the increasing homogeneity of smartphones, flagship vendors continued to differentiate themselves from one another through some clever engineering. While excitement for 5G networks continues to rise, there are still several hardware innovations within handsets that are noteworthy. In this blog, we offer an insight into how the smartphone, the defining consumer electronic of the 21st century so far, is likely to develop through 2019 and beyond.

Smartphone cameras now have various methods for capturing and editing high quality photographs in both the day and night. At the hardware end of this competitive landscape is Samsung. The global number one smartphone brand in volume terms, Samsung’s 2018 released handsets each rely on dual aperture hardware that is more commonly found in high-end DSLR’s. In low light, it widens to capture as much light as possible, while direct sunlight will see the camera aperture narrow accordingly. With optical image stabilisation, and the ability to alter the bokeh, the consumer has more control over their photos at a hardware level. Given Samsung’s reliance on aperture camera’s, it is likely that their much-anticipated foldable phone will have the same or similar features, with expectations it will use a camera like the S10’s. With vendors keen on three or more rear-facing lenses per phone, it is likely that their 2019 handsets will continue this trend. At MWC, Futuresource expects to see several stands that will more closely resemble those seen at a photography trade show, such is pre-eminence of the smartphone camera.

Leaning more towards a software-oriented camera solution is the Apple iPhone XS. While the dual lens arrangement and large sensors are still necessary hardware for the camera, the magic happens with the Neural Engine and faster HDR sensors. The HDR sensors capture two pictures within one-thirtieth of a second and stitches them together almost instantaneously. This raw material is passed through to the Neural Engine that analyses the frames not only to balance the exposure, but to stabilise discrete elements of the image such as 3D facial features. Post-photo, the consumer has retrospective professional-level control over bokeh and depth effects.

One final noteworthy handset is the Google Pixel 3. Unlike other flagship smartphone, the Pixel relies exclusively on a single camera lens and applies high-performance vision-processing algorithms to achieve the same effects of its rivals. Through computational imaging, the Pixel can take detailed photos in low light and reflexively adapt to the subject of the photo. With the support of AI, the Pixel also takes photo’s both before and after the shutter is clicked and offers the consumer an option to pick their favourite.

Moving away from the camera, the next key feature trend is innovation in screen technology. Trends towards bezel-less and notch screens are supported by developments in full-screen fingerprint capture and facial recognition technology. These innovations are designed to support better quality screens and higher screen ratios, which underpins the user experience of the smartphone as a media consumption device. This will remain important as 5G enters the equation, as consumers will begin streaming 4K-quality content accompanied with wide colour gamut, HDR and high-frame rates, and demand a screen that can keep up.

Foremost among expected screen trends is the advent of foldable screens, as demonstrated by Royole’s Flexpai and by Samsung’s iteration. Both vendors have approached this in slightly different ways, with Royole preferring a screen that bends around the outside of the form factor while Samsung’s version has the foldable screen on the inside (like a book) with another screen on the outside. This screen development is unlikely to impact how consumers use their phones in the short term, and is one solution designed to exploit growing demand for bigger and better screens on a pocket-sized device. This demand was catered to by flagship handsets released in 2018, but vendors such as OPPO and Xiaomi are seeking to creatively challenge the solutions offered by incumbent brands. OPPO’s ‘Find X’ maximises screen size by using a pop-out front facing camera, while Xiaomi’s Mi Mix 3 uses a magnetic slider.

One of the genuinely disruptive developments of 2018 was the improvements of Google’s voice assistant AI, with the Google Duplex expected to be available on the Pixel 3 and Pixel 3Xl in certain US cities during this early developmental stage. While this feature may not be fully rolled out through 2019, it provides an early indicator as to the how voice assistants will develop. The Google Duplex will not only be able to make appointments, it will also place a reminder in your calendar, acting as the ultimate pocket-sized personal assistant. This user case initially seems linear, however, given Google’s ability to capture a wealth of data from consumers, we can expect the interactivity of the Duplex to rapidly develop to the point that it can fulfil most functions of the phone with ease, and potentially even anticipate and predict your needs.

2019 will be a year of smartphone evolution. The excitement surrounding 5G is hard to look beyond, but beneath the potentially revolutionary network development, smartphone vendors continue to fine-tune their handsets as they seek even the slightest competitive advantage over their rivals. Whether it’s how the smartphone maximises the quality of photography, the visual experience of the consumer, or how it is moving away from being a communications device to a personal assistant, marginal gains are the aim. It is a testament to how far the smartphone has come that the extent of consumer choice can be determined by whether a handset has a bezel or a notch on its screen. 

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Stephen Mears

About the author

Stephen Mears

Stephen Mears is a Market Analyst at Futuresource Consulting, and is responsible for researching and reporting on key technology and market trends across the wearables, smartphone, and Extended Reality (XR) market. Alongside this, Stephen is also heavily involved in Futuresource’s retail distribution tracking service, assessing the retail landscape for consumer electronics products across major global markets.

Stephen joined Futuresource in 2018 after graduating from the University of Warwick with a Bachelor of Arts (BA) in Philosophy, Politics, and Economics. He is currently pursuing a part-time, distance Masters of Arts (MA) in International Relations & Contemporary War with King’s College, London.

Simon Forrest

About the author

Simon Forrest

As Principal Technology Analyst for Futuresource Consulting, Simon is responsible for identifying and reporting on transformational technologies that have propensity to influence and disrupt market dynamics. A graduate in Computer Science from the University of York, his expertise extends across broadcast television and audio, digital radio, smart home, broadband, Wi-Fi and cellular communication technologies.

He has represented companies across standards groups, including the Audio Engineering Society, DLNA, WorldDAB digital radio, the Digital TV Group (DTG) and Home Gateway Initiative.

Prior to joining Futuresource, Simon held the position of Director of Segment Marketing at Imagination Technologies, promoting development in wireless home audio semiconductors, and Chief Technologist within Pace plc (now Commscope) responsible for technological advancement within the Pay TV industry.

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