What will smartphones look like in 2020?

Thanks to Moore’s Law, electronic devices are increasingly packed with more power and functionality, improving our life qualities with more convenience, productivity, and entertainment. Just to put things in perspective, Steve Cichon of Trending Buffalo shows that an iPhone (assuming an iPhone 5S at the beginning of 2014, when his blog was written) can replace $3,054.82 worth of electronics sold in Radio Shack in 1991, according to a flyer post in The Buffalo News.

radioshackad

“It’s nothing new, but it’s a great example of the technology of only two decades ago now replaced by the 3.95 ounce bundle of plastic, glass, and processors in our pockets,” says Steve Cichon.

As cool as we think our smartphones are today, I dare to say that two decades later by 2035, when people compare their personal electronics (assuming they don’t use the term “smartphones” anymore!) against the current smartphone features, they would be amazed by how big, heavy and slow these electronics are today. If you still don’t get what I mean, take a look at this 1991 Sony Walkman Commercial, and try to recall how cool the Walkman was in 1991.

While I certainly do not have the crystal ball that tells me what kind of personal electronic devices people will be using by 2035, I would like to make a few guesses of what smartphones would look like in just 5 years, say 2020.

User Interface

I believe touchscreen [with touchscreen controllers] will still be the main user interface for smartphones by 2020. While Generation Z are called “digital natives,” I think kids who are born after Generation Z would be “touch natives.” Toddlers and young children playing with iPod Touch, iPhone and iPad today will attempt to touch all display interfaces as their way of interacting with electronics in the coming years. I also believe smartphone interfaces would expand beyond just touch, and there are two possible expansions within five years: gesture controls and voice commands.

Gesture control refers to hand or facial interactions with the smartphone.  Samsung’s Galaxy S4 (with Air View) and Amazon’s Fire Phone (with 4 corner cameras) made interesting attempts for enabling hand and facial gesture recognition, but unfortunately, these features were not very successfully adopted by consumers because they were hard to learn, limited by hardware capabilities, and unreliable or inconsistent to use. But smartphone OEMs will continue improve their designs, and smartphones will eventually be capable of reliably recognize our intentions by tracking our hand or eyeball motions, or facial expressions.

Voice command is widely popular today, but will become a lot more useful in five years. Think of Apple’s Siri, Google’s Google Now and Microsoft’s Cortana, as cloud computing becomes more artificial intelligent with more data and computational power, they will become more dependable for average consumers to adapt. I hope that by 2020, my daily commutes with Apple’s Siri will no longer be worse than talking to my 2-year old son — Siri will help me change FM radio channels or launch a Podcast via Carplay in my dashboard. I will also be able to ask Google Now to order a pizza for me (topped with bacon, pepperoni and sausage, of course) without directly talking to the pizza-shop guy. Google Now will tell me when the pizza might arrive (based on the traffic congestion conditions), and open the door for me through my Nest, which as a Bluetooth connection to my front door’s electronic lock.

Integration

Needless to say, smartphones will be further integrated come the year 2020. Smartphone integration will follow a much similar path as the PC’s integration, except it will take place A LOT faster. Integration doesn’t always mean electronic components will disappear; rather, it can also mean that more hardware performance is integrated into the device. Today’s leading smartphones are packed with a Quad- or Octa-core Application Processor, running between 1.3 to 2.5GHz. By 2020, I’m guessing that smartphone CPUs will be 8 to 16-cores, running between 2.5-4.0 GHz range, (they probably will eat today’s Intel Core i7, designed for high-performance PCs, for lunch.)with 8-10GB RAM and 500-750 GB of storage.

I also believe smartphones will integrate more hardware components for better “context-awareness.” Today’s leading smartphones are easily packed with 10 sensors — gyro, ambient light, accelerometer, barometer, hall sensor, finger scanner, heart rate monitor, among a number of others. I think more microphones (today’s camera usually has at least two microphones) and cameras (again, at least two today) will be packed into the devices to enable improved awareness — 4, 6 or even 8 microphones and cameras are quite possible by 2020. For instance, having multiple microphones enables listening from different positions inside the phone and at different frequencies (i.e. not only voice commands); in addition, it will allow the smartphone to determine its location, its surroundings (whether inside or out) how far it is away from the voice command and even how to improve noise cancellation. Also, having multiple cameras will allow the device to better track facial expressions (Amazon’s Fire Phone is a good example), to capture better 3D and panorama images, or to refocus photos by post-processing (hTC One M8 is a good example).

Further, component-level integration will continue to happen. With increasing applications processor power, the A/P will be able to take over many digital processing from discrete components inside the phone, although I think Sensor Hub will continue to drive low-power, context-awareness tasks while the A/P sleeps.

Display Technology

Do you envision 4K displays (i.e.3840 x 2160) on your smartphone? Today, Apple’s “Retina Display” in the iPhone 5S offers a 326 pixel-per-inch, and many new smartphone displays exceed that pixel density. Smartphone displays are increasing in sizes, moving from 3.2″ and 4″ just a few years ago to 4.7″, 5.2″, 5.5″ and even 6.4”. As the screen sizes increase, as will the display resolution, while keeping the high PPI density.

I think both LCD and AMOLED displays will continue to exist in 2020, as both technologies have their advantages and disadvantages for smartphone applications. From a consumer perspective, I would expect both types of displays to improve on resolution, color accuracy (for example, Xiaomi’s latest Mi4 display has a color gamut covering 84% of the NTSC range, and that’s even better than Apple’s iPhone 5S display), power consumption and thinner assembly allowing for slimmer industrial design.

As smartphones with 2K displays be introduced by the end of 2014, it isn’t unreasonable to say that 4K displays would be used in smartphones, perhaps by or even before 2020.  However, everything has a cost, and the extra pixels that our human eye cannot resolve will consume power from the graphic engine. Would you prefer to trade off some pixel densities with longer battery life? Personally, I think we do not need a 4K smartphone screen. (And yet, I may laugh at myself saying this when we look back five years from now.)

Battery Technology

The thirst for more power is always there. With increased processing capabilities, context-awareness and better display technologies, we can only assume that future smartphones will require more power than what they are carrying today. Today’s top-tier smartphones can package a battery around 3000 mAh. That’s plenty of juice for a day, but consumers always crave for longer battery life or more powerful smartphones with longer video streaming time. Luckily, research on new battery technologies have been increased, thanks to the explosion of portable electronics. I believe there are two types of technologies that will be available and improve our smartphone experiences by 2020:

Battery with higher density: Forbes recently reported that a group of researchers at Stanford University designed a new solution to increase the capacity of existing battery technology by 400%. This is just one of the promising researches we’ve seen in recent years that could one day be deployed for mass production in just a few years. For the same size of battery that lasts for a day of use in 2014, we can expect that smartphones will last for a week without charging by 2020. On the other hand, smartphone OEMs can also select to use a smaller size battery in the smartphone, and in exchange, use the extra room inside the smartphone to integrate other components and features.

Battery with rapid charging capabilities: A gadget-lover’s dream is to get a full-charge of their smartphones within 5 minutes of charging. Today, UNU’s Ultrapak battery pack can deliver a full charge to devices after just 15 minutes of charging itself up. This isn’t to say the technology is ready for smartphone integration, due to various reasons; however, we’re seeing smartphones adopting rapid charging technologies today (such as Oppo’s Find 7) and we should expect that smartphones will have a much shorter charge time thanks to various rapid-charging standards, such as Qualcomm’s Quick Charge 2.0. Several smartphone models have adopted this standard, including Xiaomi’s Mi3, Mi4, Samsung Galaxy S5 and hTC One M8.

Smartphone Camera

Last but certainly not least, I think smartphone cameras will certainly undergo many improvements by 2020. In fact, the smartphone camera performance is one of the features driving smartphone sales. A safe and simple prediction is that camera’s pixel density would continue to increase as CMOS sensor technology advances. Today, Microsoft’s Lumia 1020 has 41 megapixels, yet I don’t see an average consumer needing that many pixels even by 2020. Personally, I would be very happy with a camera that offers 15-20 megapixel — good photographers understand that pixel isn’t the only determining factor for a good camera, as it is only one of the key aspects.

I am not expecting the camera in a smartphone is capable of optical zooming. Instead, I’d much rather have a smartphone that’s light and portable. In fact, today’s smartphone cameras are pretty good by themselves, but there are always improvements can be made. I think the iPhone 5S cameras can be better with image stabilization, the Galaxy S4 camera can be better with faster start-up and better low-light sensitivity, and the hTC One M8 camera can be designed better with more pixels and improved dynamic contrasting.

Here is a my wishlist for a smartphone camera that I would carry around in 2020, and it’s perhaps not the “2020 Edition of Lumia 1020” camera:

  • 20 megapixel with Image Stabilization, perhaps a wide, f/1.0 aperture
  • HDR, Panorama view
  • Excellent white balance and color accuracy
  • Excellent low-light sensitivity
  • Full manual control
  • Extremely short start-up latency, and fast and accurate auto-focus
  • 4K video recording @ 120fps (with simultaneous image recording)

I may not be a fortune teller, but there you go… that’s my prediction for what a smartphone will look like in the year 2020. Would you be interested in spending your hard-earned dough in 2020 for a smartphone with the above spec? Everyone has an opinion on what the future entails, and my idea of a smartphone five years from now are as good as those of the readers of this blog. I think we would all agree that the advancements in technology will continue to improve the quality of lives. As smartphones become more personal and depend ended upon, we’ll all reap the benefits from the smartphone evolution.

 

8 thoughts on “What will smartphones look like in 2020?

  1. Paul Tap

    I think by 2020 the smartphone will be dissapearing as a form factor. It will be replaced by wearables, for instance a watch (or glasses) like networking hub, that seamlessly communicates with the output device best suited for the occasion. Those may be ‘dumb’ screens that look like the phones/tablets of today, but also sound devices and even household stuff. Okay, that’s post 2020 perhaps.

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  2. Michael

    I think that in 2020, smartphones will be just a piece of glass with two pieces of plastic( 1 @ the top and 1 @ the bottom ) that will contain all the diodes and the glass will be a touch aswell as a screen

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