Yes, the tech we have in our smartphones now is the best they’ve ever been. But are the features in your latest smartphone really revolutionary anymore, or just incremental upgrades from what came before?
"iPhone 11 Pro-Max"
IT’S OFFICIAL. THE SMARTPHONE IS THE SINGLE MOST USED DEVICE IN OUR LIVES TODAY.
We rely on it for communication, entertainment, recreation, some of us actually do work on it, and some even treat it as a status symbol.
Yet, even the most hardcore iPhone fan will have to admit – it’s been a while since anything truly revolutionary shook up the smartphone world. Take a sweeping glance into any mobile phone store, and you’ll probably be hard pressed to tell one model from another just from the front. Let’s take a look at the four main diﬀerentiating aspects of any smartphone: Form factor, Display, Camera, and Connectivity to see where’re they at and how they could be better.
HOW DIFFERENT DO WE REALLY WANT OUR PHONE TO LOOK?
Today, one of the loudest complaints you’ll hear about the newest smartphone is that it looks too much like last year’s model. Words like “iterative” get thrown about in every review. The iPhone 11 Pro Max? Oh it’s great, but it looks the same as the iPhone XS Max! To be fair, not all of these statements are intended as criticism – the 2018 and 2019 iPhones do look very similar and it’s impossible to get away from that fact.
But you’ll also hear the average consumer lamenting that the latest kid on the block doesn’t feel exciting enough. After all, we’ve gotten so used to smartphones as slabs of glass and metal year after year that you can hardly blame people for looking for the next big thing.
That said, it’s almost easy to forget the massive changes the mobile phone has undergone over the past couple of decades. We’ve come quite a long way to get these slim and shiny pocket computers, and the 2000s alone saw us make the leap from good old Nokia feature phones to the very first iPhone.
But let’s turn the clock back further. Today’s smartphones can perhaps trace their roots back to the Simon Personal Communicator, which was unveiled in 1992. Built by IBM, it was only available to buy in 1994, and went on to sell roughly 50,000 units in just six months. It cost US$1,100, which works out to around US$2,000 in today’s dollars. That’s more than the iPhone 11 Pro Max, which starts at US$1,099.
The Simon Personal Communicator had a monochrome LCD touchscreen and a middling 1-hour battery life. Its feature set was also almost laughable, comprising email, an address book, faxes, support for a stylus and predictive typing. In a quaint turn, you could even plug it into a regular phone jack to make calls on your landline, which was cheaper and oﬀered better connection.
The following years saw companies like Nokia, Motorola, and Ericsson find success with an assortment of traditional candy bar-style feature phones and flip models. There were also slider phones like the Nokia N95 that used a sliding mechanism to achieve a more compact form factor. Then came BlackBerry with the 5810, which targeted business-minded folks with a physical QWERTY keyboard.
Fast-forward to 2007, and everything changed. Steve Jobs announced the iPhone at Macworld, a device that ditched the physical keyboard entirely for a full touchscreen interface. The rest, as we say, is history. The smartphone market exploded, sparking oﬀ waves of devices from competitors that adopted the same basic form factor. Arguably, we’re right back where we started. The only diﬀerence is that they’re more advanced than before.
Along the way, there have been some intrepid players who’ve attempted to try something new. There was 2016’s LG G5, which introduced a modular design that let you swap in various accessories like a camera grip or portable DAC. That suﬀered a tepid reception though, and LG ditched the idea entirely. Google’s Project Ara didn’t even get oﬀ the ground. Lenovo is still soldiering on with its moto mods, but it hasn’t gained enough traction to change the smartphone market significantly.
Ultimately, it feels like the traditional slate-style smartphone isn’t going anywhere. Even when smaller outfits like Nextbit and Red try to do something diﬀerent with the Robin and Hydrogen One, they still stick to the same tried-and-tested form factor. The smartphone as a glass-and-metal slate is here to stay for a while longer, and it’s a testament to the fact that sometimes the simplest and most elegant solution is the best one.
We’re waiting for the next big thing in smartphones, but when someone like LG tries to be adventurous, they’re promptly put through the ringer. Maybe they didn’t do it right or well enough, but it’s also possible that for all the complaints about iterative designs, we’re so comfortable with phones as they are that we don’t actually want anything diﬀerent. In the meantime, I’m waiting for Tony Stark’s see-through phone from Iron Man 2. But wait, it’s also a slate!
PICTURE 123RF, APPLE. SIMON
BIGGER, SHARPER, AND SCREEN-TO-BODY RATIOS?
We are a spoilt bunch. We lament the notch on the new iPhones’ display and we curse the position of the Galaxy Note 10’s punch-hole camera, but bezel-less displays on phones are actually a fairly recent development. For the most part of the mobile phone’s history, we actually had phones that had larger keypads than displays. Lest you forget, the first commercially ready mobile phone was released in 1984 and the iPhone, the grand-daddy of modern touchscreen smartphones, was only launched in 2007.
The earliest mobile phones like the Motorola DynaTAC and MicroTAC of the Eighties were dominated by keypads and could only show a line of text. When Nokia’s first mass-produced GSM phone, the Nokia 1011, came along in 1992, it upped the ante by displaying two lines of texts. No one was concerned about display size or resolution; it was how much text you could display that mattered.
In the late Nineties, we finally had a breakthrough when Nokia announced phones with displays that could display monochrome graphics. It was around 1.5-inch large and had a resolution of 84 x 48 pixels, a pixel density count of a mere 64 PPI, and could display 5 lines of text and graphics. This made picture messages and games possible. Another breakthrough came at the turn of the millennium when we finally had colours. To be sure, the first phone capable of displaying colours is widely acknowledged to be the Siemens S10 from 1998, but it could only show four colours.
Two years on, Nokia once again made headlines with its bulky but powerful 9210 Communicator. It was the first device to run Symbian and it had a large 4.5-inch display that had a resolution of 640 x 200 pixels and could display a staggering 4,096 colours.
In 2007, things changed forever when Apple announced the iPhone. Its touchscreen interface would inform the design and function of a whole new generation of phones to come. From then on, it became a race of who has the largest and brightest display, and who has the highest resolution and pixel density count.
And now, it seems like we are on the cusp of another big change in smartphone design as smartphone makers look to take phone displays to the next level, in the most literal sense as the future seems to be even bigger displays but in form factors that remain pocketable.
For now, it seems like there are two ways to get there. On the one hand, we have folding displays. We already have the Samsung Galaxy Fold in the wild and Huawei will soon release its Mate X. On the other hand, Microsoft is proposing the Surface Duo, a compact device with two separate displays joined by an elaborate 360-degree hinge. The Galaxy Fold and Mate X are arguably more futuristic, but the Surface Duo is probably more practical and usable in the real world. At any rate, it seems like phone displays will only get bigger from here on.
Personally, I’m still waiting for an all-display phone without the usual compromises. This means no notch, no punch-hole camera, and it must have some form of water and dust resistance – this means no fancy sliding or popup mechanisms for the front-facing camera. In other words, some form of under display camera is necessary. Oppo recently showed oﬀ such a phone and said it will be launched soon. I can’t wait to see what it’ll be like.
"Samsung Galaxy Fold"
IS THE BEST CAMERA STILL THE ONE WITH YOU?
Once considered a “crazy novelty” on a Japanese phone, the camera on your smartphone has undoubtedly come a long way. It all started with the humble Kyocera VP-210 in May 1999, with its front-facing 110,000 pixel (0.11MP) CMOS camera and 256-colour display.
Meant to be a phone, camera and photo album, the VP-210 allowed you to see the person you’re talking to by sending two images per second through Japan’s PHS mobile phone network system. The 155g camera could also take 20 photos and send them out via email. By 2004, the Sprint PCS Vision(SM) Picture Phone became the first phone in the United States that took 1,280 x 960 pixel shots that were good enough to print.
In 2008, the LG Renoir was the first touchscreen camera phone with an 8-megapixel camera. That ran apps, had 16x digital zoom, and a Xenon flash. By 2013, camera phones had advanced to the state where the Chicago Sun-Times felt comfortable enough to lay oﬀ their entire photography staﬀ, getting their reporters to instead provide reporting with “video and multimedia elements” using the iPhone 5S.
Fast forward to April 2014, and you started having multiple cameras on every phone. That solved the issue of smartphones not being able to switch lenses, but also created a technical problem in terms of having to combine the images together. You were also limited in terms of focal length as there’s only so much protrusion you’d want from the smartphone in your pocket.
That’s where the next innovation in smartphone photography arose – periscope-style lenses. Oppo revealed a periscope-style camera setup back in 2017 that refiected light parallel to the internal PCB, allowing the lens the space it needs for a longer zoom.
With this year’s Huawei P30 Pro, that periscope-style design lets it fit the equivalent of a 135mm lens into the confines of a smartphone that measures just 8.4mm deep. That’s incredibly impressive, especially when you consider that this be further pushed digitally to the equivalent of a 270mm lens with little quality loss.
Enter the next dimension in smartphone photography – computational photography. By being intelligent about the data collected, smartphone makers were able to oﬀer bokeh eﬀects thanks to a depth map gathered from both lenses. By gathering data from diﬀerent focal lengths, they’re also able to oﬀer smoother digital zoom as the gaps between information captured are smaller.
Smartphone makers like Huawei and Google have also used the information captured by their camera sensors to improve photography capture beyond what you might get with traditional cameras.
For example, low light situations with a typical camera would require the use of a tripod to allow for a long exposure. However, this brings in the element of image noise due to overheating of the sensor and errors introduced with a lengthier read process. With computational photography though, multiple exposures are taken and combined to achieve the final result in a shorter time.
Can smartphone camera systems eventually outperform Interchangeable Lens Cameras? Well, if networks and processors continue to evolve at the current pace, I don’t see why not. Imagine a system that isn’t trying to reconstruct an image based on the camera’s current settings. Rather, it completes an existing image residing in the cloud with contextual information gathered at the point of the shot.
That would mean no detail loss due to sensor noise, resolution that wasn’t determined by the size of the sensor, with the angle adjusted to match your shooting angle. You’d need an extremely fast connection to tap on that amount of information, as well as much faster processors to handle all that information, but you’d have pictures from your phone that truly refiect what your eyes see.
HOW MUCH BETTER CAN CONNECTIVITY GET?
When mobile phones first appeared in our lives, the first devices were dubbed 1G mobile phones that made used of analogue radio signals. With the advent of digital cellular networks, mark the arrival of 2G mobile phones, followed by 3G smartphones that leapfrogged over their digital predecessors with speeds that were roughly four times as fast! The widely adopted 4G mobile standards was faster than 3G but it failed to meet specification standards in order to be branded as true 4G. Our closest experience with true 4G is the current 4G LTE.
Mobile phones are at the cusp of a revolution, which is brought on by the arrival of 5G digital connectivity. 5G promises greater bandwidth, dramatically lower latencies, and the capacity to support up to 1 million connected devices per square kilometre in parallel. 5G mobile phone users can look forward to more reliable service experience, even in crowded places at the busiest times.
The new 5G infrastructure also calls for implementation of smaller mmWave cells to augment the main 5G cell towers. As a result, 5G mobile users can look forward to more reliable connection with less chance of connectivity dropouts. Faster downloads and much lower latencies may just make cloud-based mobile gaming a reality on 5G mobile handsets, and the mobile devices of the future can oﬄoad the GPU-intensive tasks to cloud-based services without compromising gaming experience. 5G also promises always-on, instantaneous enhanced Mobile Broadband (eMBB) connectivity, and this will ensure better implementation of augmented and virtual reality on mobile applications. Therefore, 5G consumers can look forward to more immersive user experience with their mobile devices.
What we are currently doing on our 4G mobile handsets will be greatly enhanced by 5G connectivity. Our voice assistants like Google Assistant, Siri and Bixby will be able to leverage on the enhanced bandwidth and low latency to provide better responses to our requests and enquiries. Near real-time language translation with our mobile devices will enhance communication between diﬀerent language speakers.
There will be undiscovered use cases for 5G implementation on mobile devices but 5G is far from just a technology for mobile phones. The mobile 5G networks can be used by other devices that demand bandwidth, low latency and reliable machine-tomachine communication. They include edge computing and IoT devices that perform real-time data collection and processing. These devices leverage on 5G connectivity for to perform their tasks seamlessly. In return, their processed data is fed back to backend information system that pipe enhanced services and applications, over the same 5G network infrastructure, which are then consumed by 5G mobile users.
In summary, 5G holds promise of a better connected society with unfettered access to information and services at lighting speeds. As 5G services are being rolled out in major cities worldwide, there’s already talk of its successor, 6G. As 5G is harked as the ultimate wireless connectivity technology for a myriad of devices, 6G is touted to oﬀer even higher bandwidths and even lower latency.
Since mobile phones are seen as enablers of communication, we envision 6G and beyond devices that are able to project our holographic presence for an immersive remote collaboration, i.e., we are able to interact with the holographic presence of the party on the other end of the line. Perhaps even our human senses can be captured and digitized by future devices and sent over next generation cellular networks to meet our need to socialize with greater digital accuracy.
PICTURE 123RF, SAMSUNG
"Yet, even the most hardcore iPhone fan will have to admit – it’s been a while since anything truly revolutionary shook up the smartphone world. "
"We’re waiting for the next big thing in smartphones, but when someone like LG tries to be adventurous, they’re promptly put through the ringer. "
PICTURE 123RF, APPLE. MOTOROLA
By gathering data from different focal lengths, they’re also able to offer smoother digital zoom as the gaps between information captured are smaller.