Acting as a powerful computer in the palm of your hand, today’s smartphones can do everything from make calls and send texts to play videos, take photographs, search the internet and harness a wide array of other tasks.
Can smartphone vendors make their devices even better and more versatile? That’s what eWEEK asked a group of IT analysts, to get their thoughts on what might be the biggest new features in the smartphones that will hit the market in 2018.
While artificial intelligence (AI) features have already shown up in some smartphones, such as Google’s Pixel 2, augmented reality (AR) features are also on the verge of being seen more in 2018, according to Dan Olds of Gabriel Consulting Group.
“I think the ‘next big thing’ will be phones with augmented reality,” Olds said. “This is where you’ll be able to point your phone at a street scene, and your phone will show you all of the businesses located on that street, for example. If you’re following directions on your phone, you will point your phone along your route and it will superimpose your waypoints on the picture.”
As AR on phones develops, it could enable users to perform facial recognition on the people around them and connect to their social media accounts, but there will likely be privacy concerns with such an approach, he says.
Another analyst, Tuong H. Nguyen of Gartner, said he sees the big push in 2018 being in AI, particularly in using the technology with smartphone cameras to recognize objects, words and maps. That will likely come through innovations using previously unveiled app development platforms like Google’s ARCore and Apple’s ARKit, he said.
“I expect to see more devices and applications use the camera’s lens to understand the world by doing things such as recognizing objects—visual search like with Google Lens or reading using Google Translate and mapping and understanding the environment using ARCore or ARKit,” Nguyen said.
Nguyen said he also expects similar improvements with AI and the use of voice to continue to refine and improve user interaction with their smartphones.
“AI and these types of [features] will make devices more functional and easier to use, especially since they are essential technologies and are becoming more multifunctional as part of a larger ecosystem of connected devices,” he said.
Jeff Orr, an analyst with ABI Research, agrees that more AI innovations are likely to come in 2018. “Greater promotion of AI technologies [will] enable more personalized experiences and overall user experience enhancement,” he said. By adding personalization, the devices will “learn the path to completion that is the best fit for the individual, which can include everything from a tutorial of steps to anticipating the next screen click and prefetching memory.”
Flexible Phones May Not Impress Users
The idea of flexible or bendable handset displays has been around for a few years, with some devices already hitting the market, including ZTE’s Axon M foldable phone in October. Apple and Samsung are still reportedly working on their own designs. But will these phones capture the imaginations of consumers?
Charles King, principal analyst with Pund-IT, said he’s not so sure, and that “it’s extremely difficult to project how consumers will respond to the idea. If they’re unenthusiastic, flexible phones may go down as one of those, ‘just because you can do something doesn’t mean you should’ ideas.”
Avi Greengart, an analyst with GlobalData, doesn’t see them catching on.
“I think we’ll see the first flexible phones, and—at least for this generation—they’ll fail,” he said. “It is not clear what problems flexible phones solve for consumers, and there are always tradeoffs in display quality.”
Almost every phone in the future will likely include some sort of biometric security feature, according to Olds of Gabriel Consulting Group. “The most common will be a fingerprint reader, closely followed by facial recognition on future phones.”
King agrees, but said that while “biometric ID seems to be table stakes for phones, the real question is whether Apple pressing forward with facial recognition will result in other vendors following suit, sticking with fingerprint readers or going their own way.”
Another analyst, Rob Enderle of Enderle Group, said that while it is likely more devices will have fingerprint readers, “facial recognition will likely still get a small pop, but Apple’s issues with the iPhone X suggest the market will eventually pull back from facial recognition in 2018.” Some users have reported problems using the phone’s face scanner in bright sunlight, while others have reported other issues.
Another expected development in smartphones in 2018 is the trickle-down of premium features to less-expensive midrange phones, said Patrick Moorhead, principal analyst with Moor Insights & Strategy.
“The trickle-down features will be primarily dual cameras and edge-to-edge displays in addition to the bigger-better-faster processors, graphics and modems,” he said.
Greengart of GlobalData said he also expects such features to trickle down to less-expensive phones, including entry level handsets getting reduced-size bezels that provide more display space and mimic more expensive phones, as well as HDR displays on all but the lowest end models of phones.
‘The Year of Smart’
Jack E. Gold, principal analyst with J. Gold Associates, said he expects 2018 to be “the year of smart” for digital personal assistants as new AI-based technologies push beyond the capabilities of existing digital assistants such as Apple’s Siri and Google’s Assistant.
“Many mobile devices will compete by trying to offer the best assistants that can do the most,” said Gold. “That will include working through back-end cloud-based services, but also with on-board ‘AI Lite’ processing capability.”
Gold said he imagines the coming features will be “more along the lines of concierge services that know something about what we are doing, what we want to do and what we need to do next. It might take 2-3 years to get there, using the new AI engines, but we are on the way.”