The year is halfway done, and we’ve seen a lot what this year in tech has to offer. Most of the big name OEMs have already pitched in their traditional best-player in the market, hoping to secure that coveted spot in our pockets or purses.
Yet for some reason, 2017 feels much unlike 2016, being different in the sentiment that a new smartphone release evokes. Granted, great phones existed in both these years. But I personally found myself getting excited much more frequently this half-year for phones from all sorts of OEMs, big or small. Last year simply did not have the same vibe to it.
So what makes 2016 so different from 2016 in getting consumers and tech enthusiasts beyond the levels of casual curiosity?
To put it bluntly, 2015 was a trainwreck in the Android world. A lot of things broke, and a lot of efforts were initiated to fix these things that were broken. This diverted focus and primary attention from long-term growth to short-term survival. Products struggled, companies struggled, and the final loser was the consumer who had his set of options shrunk down to just a few real ones.
One of the biggest issues with the phones last year happened to be Snapdragon processors. Whether it be the thermally throttlingSnapdragon 810, or the plain hot and performance-ineffective Snapdragon 615, both of these made their way onto a large number of devices. The sheer market share between these two processors and the lack of real competition in performance (better processors for their respective price points were not widely available) and usability left little choice for the consumer who cared enough (which included us Android enthusiasts as well). If you wanted to avoid these two processors, the phones that you could purchase and that were still relevant in 2015 shrunk down drastically. MediaTek existed and so did Exynos (although limited to a small handful of devices). But running with these had their own share of limitations and compromises.
Which brings us on to the other recurring theme from 2015: Compromises. It is true that no one device can suit each and every one of us, as it will always be a compromise in one way or another to someone else. But the number of devices which had obvious shortcomings was way too high in 2015. Part of this can be attributed to the gradual transition of the industry in terms of what it can output in a product produced with obsolescence planned beforehand. This meant that more and more products went the other way with regards future proofing: we had more non-removable batteries, and more devices with non-expandable storage. Repairability of devices in general took a hit with more and more devices opting for Glass and Metal or Metallic Unibody constructions. Even battery capacity was not spared in the process of beautification, with precious minutes of usage trimmed away to make your device a fraction of a millimeter thinner.
The compromises in 2015 and the failure to adapt to the changing needs of the masses led to a drop in sales for many OEMs. Profit margins on Android devices thinned out, with several OEMs like LG and HTC even making net losses on handset sales by Q4 2015. The market kept the pressure constant with newer entrants always trying to get a bite of the consumer pie. It was a very sticky situation altogether from a business perspective, since areas like advertising, marketing and after-sales remain comparatively fixed expense areas which are not directly and immediately affected by the drop in sales.
The combined net result from 2015 was that companies had to make changes in their current order of things, if they wished to survive. The old order would not sustain the companies into 2016. Changes had to come, and the factors which contributed to a dismal 2015 had to be done away with. And that is exactly what is happening in 2016….
The newer generation Snapdragons are now appearing on flagship and mid-end devices. The Snapdragon 820and the Snapdragon 650 have taken up the mantle from their predecessors, and both have enough oomph in them to keep the complaints and the naysayers at bay. Whether it’s because of lowered expectations after witnessing 2015, or whether it actually is because of outstanding results, these SoC’s have performed above expectations. Both seem to be a solid pair to carry over the devices that already do use them as well as those that will in the latter half of 2016.
But simply slapping on a good SoC will not work in favor of OEM’s looking to drastically improve their situations. Their situation was desperate, and they had to dabble into newer territories to maintain their competitive edge. Enter Virtual Reality, which is becoming the next driving factor for Android and Android smartphone hardware.
The state of virtual reality in 2015 was still in its infancy with just a handful of names providing a VR experience. You had the very basic Google Cardboard to wet your feet. But outside of just being a teaser, Google Cardboard had inherent limitations in providing a rich experience. Other mobile VR solutions like Samsung’s Gear VRimproved on several factors, but still, naturally could not compete with full VR solutions like the Oculus Rift andHTC Vive. In 2016, we see mobile VR looking to play on its consumer friendly advantage by becoming much more widely accessible. Infact, certain phones even in the low-mid end of the market bundled in offers with mobile VR headsets, like the Lenovo Vibe K4 Note which collaborated with ANTVR for the headset.
With Google kicking things up a notch with DayDream VR, the last few months of 2016 will certainly be a lot more happening for VR. The ZTE Axon 7 is the first Daydream-ready smartphone, sans the Android N update, and we certainly expect a lot more phones to come out with heightened specifications to more than deliver an enriching experience.
If the prospects of Virtual Reality do not excite you, then there’s another area that might pique your curiosity: Modularity!
What was a pipe dream in 2015, came to fruition in 2016 with the launch of the LG G5. Sure, the actual implementation by LG might seem lackluster given the hype buildup and the potential for modularity in general. But one can’t deny that LG’s initiative did spur further interest from OEMs. Even more, it showed the end consumer that we can have one phone serving different needs at different times through the use of modules, which is important from the point of view of giving other platforms a place to jump start their project funding from.
With Project Ara kicking strongly, albeit in a less-modular manner than it was originally intended to be, and a developer-focused device slated for late 2016 release, there is certainly something to be excited about. Then there’s the Lenovo Moto Z and all of its MotoMods, which improves and builds up on the G5-style modularity with the difference being completely externally-attaching modules. These are the products that are being worked on right now, and if they do pick up steam and get widespread consumer interest, we can be sure that more OEMs will jump in.
On the less revolutionary side of things, we are seeing improvements in phones which make them a bit more future proof than their 2015-counterparts. Features that went away in 2015 are making a return, like the microSD card slot. Removable batteries are yet to make a mainstream comeback, but there’s a good chance they won’t, keeping in mind the direction the market is headed to in areas like device dimensions, build materials, planned obsolescence and more.
Newer technologies are also making their way onto phones, with fingerprint sensors and faster charging becoming a pseudo-standard of sorts due to the competitive forces of the market at play, and advancements in software and hardware. There’s increased adoption of the USB Type C standard, and then there’s also renewed attention towards newer and less populated differentiating areas like high-quality Audio DACs.
All in all, 2016 has been a satisfying year so far. We’ve already witnessed some of the highlights of the year, and there’s still a good number of months ahead of us. I am personally excited for the latter half of 2016, for the success of this year will define the direction of the smartphone industry for the next. And so far, it has been very exciting. Let’s hope the future does not disappoint.