A little over 12 months ago we posted an article about the mobile world after August 2011. In it we detailed some of the more interesting things that had happened that year, as well as some of the bigger stories. We also tried our best to get our readers to take a step back and look at the tech world from the outside.
It’s easy to forget how incredibly technological everyday society has become. We walk around from day to day with little mini computers in our pockets that access a world-wide communication web with greater speeds than the fastest modem in the 1990s. We partake in social media, get news from across the world almost instantaneously and many of us don’t even feel whole without our little gadgets by our sides.
We thought it might be interesting to take another look and see how, or if, things had changed in a little over 12 months. So, without any further ado, here’s some of what we think are the more interesting topics of consideration in the mobile world after November, 2012.
Smartphones are Powerful
In last year’s article we talked briefly about how powerful smartphones had become, naming single-core 1GHz processors as the reason. Well, now they’re even more so. These days most high-end Androids come touting at least quad-core 1.4GHz processors and the, until recently, traditional 1GB of RAM is now being upped to 2GB. As an interesting point of comparison: Bill Gates is often (questionably) quoted as having said that no one will ever need more than 637K of memory (RAM). 2GB is over 3000 times that figure, and we carry it around in our pocket-sized phones.
Of course, advances in computing are nothing new. As a matter of fact history has shown them to be nothing if not unavoidable. But it’s still impressive to think that just 12 months ago a dual-core 1.2GHz CPU in a smartphone seemed ridiculous enough and now we’re so familiar with quad-core 1.4GHz varieties that they almost sound old-hat.
This appears more incredible when the overall history of computers and computing is viewed, even if only in passing. One of the world’s first super-computers, the Cray 1 in 1976, is regarded among the most successful and contemporarily powerful super-computers in history. It boasted the rough equivalent of an 80MHz processor. This would be insufficient to handle even the most simplistic and minor computing task of our daily lives. Many of our gadgets that we don’t particularly think of as computers are often more powerful than this.
Smartphones, despite their increasing commonality, remain nothing short of a wonder of modern technology. They take photos, access the internet with increasing effectiveness, provide social connections through social media, update us on news, provide literature and media to entertain us and, of course, they’re also phones. Go just ten years back in time and pick any Sci-Fi narrative and you’ll find technology like this being depicted in the far-future. Not only that, said depictions are usually less impressive than actual modern smartphones, in an effort to make them seem ‘believable’ to their contemporary audiences.
To be honest, should we continue to do these approximately-annual articles, we can’t see us not adding at least a small section each year on how amazing it is that we carry around these little modern marvels in our pockets.
Smartphone Cameras are Becoming Rapidly Better (in a good way)
For a long time smartphone manufacturers were so caught up in increasing the number of megapixels (MPs) that little focus was given to lens design and image-sensor improvements. As such Apple was one of the few companies that really offered great cameras, as they have always approached the camera as a whole unit, rather than a number to put on a spec sheet.
In the last generation of smartphones, however, we’ve seen almost no change whatsoever in the standard number of MP offered by high-end smartphones. Almost every one of them has stayed at, or around, the 8MP mark since last year.
This is a good thing.
8MP is really all one should ever need for the average photo. That’s not to say we’re subscribing to Bill Gate’s alleged past point of view that technology can reach a point where it will not need improvement. However, with current lens-design, image processing technology and limitations with on-board storage capacity, 8MP should more than keep us going for at least another year or two.
The reason that the MP rating of many high-end phones increased beyond last year’s figures is that OEMs are finally addressing the camera as a whole picture (no pun intended), rather than something that can be improved by cramming in more blurry pixels.
After all, what’s the point of adding more pixels if a lens can’t focus properly, or if the image sensor doesn’t work in low-light situations?
It’s great to see companies other than Apple finally making head-way in this department. As a matter of fact, Apple is one of the only manufacturers that didn’t release a vastly improved camera this year. The iPhone 5′s camera is still great, but it’s not as much of an improvement over the last model as its predecessors have been.
Tablets Other Than iPads are Becoming Popular
While iPads are still, by a long margin, the most popular tablets in the market, Android and even Windows tablets are starting to make a show of things. The Google Nexus 7 and Amazon Kindle Fire/Kindle Fire HD tablets have seen unprecedented success in the tablet market for non-iPad products. The target has been to offer a solid, but not premium tablet at a much more affordable price; generally around the $200-$250 dollar mark.
Microsoft has taken yet another approach. Instead of offering cheaper tablets, MSFT has opted for a different kind of tablet all together. Instead of offering a product that is essentially an up-sized phone in many respects, the Surface tablets are more of a slimmed-down laptop. The Surface even uses two different operating systems (depending on what Surface you get) and neither are designed for smartphones. Currently only the Surface RT is available, running Windows RT; a trimmed-down and simplified version of Windows 8. Soon to come on its heels is the Surface Pro, which will be more expensive and come running the full Windows 8 Pro OS.
So far the Surface tablets haven’t seen remarkable adoption, but they’re a far cry from the early failures that Android saw with its original tablet offerings.
The Surface tablets have also been receiving much better reviews than early Android tablets like the original Galaxy Tab series and the ill-fated Motorola Xoom, BlackBerry PlayBook or Sony P tablets.
In the face of this increase in viable competition Apple has changed gears as well, apparently getting over its hatred of smaller tablets to offer the Apple iPad Mini: a cheaper, less hardware-intensive version of the iPad with a much smaller screen.
At the very least Apple’s decision to bring another tablet in to its iPad family is indicative of the increasing popularity of Android and Microsoft in the eyes of the public. Hopefully Apple’s two biggest competitors will be able to continue providing a challenge to Apple’s tablets throughout the next year. If for nothing else than to add a little variety to the market and keep to Apple from getting complacent.
Microsoft has Changed its Business Model
Last year’s bit on Microsoft was to do with how it was no longer top dog, despite being synonymous with the word “monopoly” in the nineties. It should come as no surprise that this hasn’t changed much in just one year, but that’s not to say Microsoft itself hasn’t changed.
Microsoft is currently in a transition period between two different business models. Where its old model relied on selling separate, individual products and focused mainly on revenue from software sales such as Windows, the new model is much closer to how Apple does business.
What Microsoft is moving towards is a business model based on providing a unified ecosystem across multiple platforms and devices, while taking less revenue from software sales. Smartphones, PCs, laptops, tablets and consoles are all part of this new interconnected Microsoft family. Not only that, but Microsoft itself is starting to manufacture hardware on which this new ecosystem runs. Already in the line-up was the Xbox 360, but not MSFT has already added a line of tablets and is apparently soon to begin work on smartphones.
In order to encourage adoption of multiple Microsoft-driven products, MSFT is beginning to offer its software at a much lower price. Traditionally, a new version of Windows has been priced in the triple figures. Windows 8, however, was released at just $40 for those upgrading from Windows 7. Not only that, but Windows 8 itself is taking a much more simple, visual approach to user interface and could be indicative of Microsoft beginning to shy away from its classic format to something totally new down the line. That’s not to say that Win8 is in practice more intuitive than its predecessors; but that was definitely the drive behind its new design.
The new Windows experience begins with Windows 8 for tablets and PC, Windows Phone 8 for smartphones, Windows RT for cheaper tablets and Xbox Live, which has been expanded to offer a variety of media content rather than just focusing on games.
Microsoft has ditched its once very straight-forward, serious approach to aesthetic design and has embraced a new, relaxed look. Overall the new aesthetic designs are great, but can at times feel a bit tacked-on such as with Windows 8′s new desktop start screen.
Windows Phone 8 has Just Come Out
Windows Phone 7 was a fairly impressive “first-try” for a mobile OS. Granted, before it came Windows Mobile, but WinMob had a very different kind of approach than Win7. Aimed more at taking on BlackBerry in the business market, WinMob was a far cry from the simple, trendy design of the Windows Phone family.
WP7 did pretty well in the market, although not quite as well as MSFT had hoped. Recently, Windows Phone has been rebuilt once more from the ground up, culminating in Windows Phone 8.
News of WP8 was initially received poorly but WP7 users, as WP7 devices are insufficiently powerful to see an upgrade to the new OS. However, since the official announcement WP8 hype has been growing.
The new hardware is comparably powerful with what Apple is currently offering and the approach to physical design is fresh and awesome. WP8, mostly thanks to Nokia, is bringing color back to the smartphone game in a big way.
So far we’ve only used Windows Phone 8 for a little over a week, but our early impressions are that it’s pretty awesome. A lot of the problems with WP7 are gone, leaving a fluid and beautiful interface. Hopefully the new hardware, coupled with new home screen design and future Win8/WP8 integration with apps should be enough to boost WP8 sales to a more sustainable level.
It’s too early to tell now, but Microsoft definitely isn’t out of the game yet and WP8 has a good chance of, at the very least, faring better than Windows Phone 7 did.
A New Day Dawns for Nokia
Within the last year or so, Nokia has become a very different-looking business. No more for this world are its slow, unattractive and out-dated Symbian devices. Now that Nokia can focus almost entirely on the hardware side of things, it has become a Windows Phone market leader and an advertizing juggernaut.
Nokia Lumia sales still haven’t quite reached the levels where one can say that Nokia is out of the woods just yet; there’s still a long way to go before the Finnish giant can regain its former place of power and security in the global mobile market.
That being said, where Nokia once offered an inferior product with out-dated designs and poorly executed services, it is now the leading force behind Windows Phone handset design. As we’ve already mentioned, Nokia is bringing color back to smartphones, with other OEMs such as HTC already shamelessly following suit. The new designs are bold and eye-catching. Not only that, they don’t have the gimmicky appearance that many brightly colored devices seem to have. They are stylish, interesting and feel long-lasting; three qualities that aren’t always found in smartphone design.
Nokia is also, in our opinion, so far the most successful of Windows Phone manufacturers in terms of overall product quality. Nokia Lumia devices tend to offer superior speeds, better screens, better cameras and better design than their contemporary WP7 and WP8 competitors. Not only that, but Nokia Maps has been such a successful piece of software that Windows Phone 8 is replacing Bing Maps with Nokia Maps across all WP8 handsets.
It will be interesting to see if this new and surprising trend for Nokia will be enough to save it from ruin, or if it was already too far gone to save by the time it switched focus.
Still waiting on BlackBerry
RIM, the makers of the iconic BlackBerry line, have been in trouble for some time now. BlackBerry phones are being given up en-masse in favor of iPhones, Androids and even Windows Phones. This is often said to be because BlackBerry devices now feel cumbersome and out-dated compared to other smartphone options now that competitors have reliable, built-in business functionality as well as being great for casual use.
Yahoo’s CEO, Marissa Mayer, even recently stated that Yahoo’s employees were moving “from BlackBerries to smartphones”, inferring that BlackBerries could no longer even be considered a smartphone.
Of course, RIM’s new operating system BB10 is on its way to hopefully save the day, but that’s really part of the problem. BB10 is still on its way and time is running out.
The new BB10 operating system, what we’ve seen of it, looks impressively modern. That’s not exactly a great thing to be saying about a technology company. “Impressively modern” implies that RIM has such a history of supplying out-dated products that producing anything suitable for the current market is worthy of attention. Unfortunately it’s very much the truth.
We’re sure we’ll cop a bit of flak from BB fans for that last comment, but the market seems to agree with us. BlackBerries used to be a great, viable option for those seeking a smartphone with solid email and IM chat services. But the truth is those two functions have been available for a long time in just as high, if not higher quality, on other devices.
BB10 isn’t even slated to come out until early 2013. Hopefully RIM can survive until then and wow the tech world with a new, innovative and solid melding of operating system and hardware. If not then BlackBerry is facing the same dim future that Nokia has managed to, at least for now, stave off.
Android is Becoming Seen as a Viable Alternative to iOS
This one’s not really based on any statistics or recently released reports that we’re going to quote. More, it comes from our observations of friends, family, co-workers and just conversations in general.
One thing we’ve all noticed here over the past year, especially with the release of the Samsung Galaxy S3 and Android’s adoption of 4G LTE technologies before Apple, is that more folk seem to be regarding Android as a potential alternative to the iPhone.
More and more often we are asked what we think of Android in comparison to iOS, or what the ‘best phone’ is on the market, in lieu of “when’s the next iPhone coming out?” Obviously the iPhone is still the undisputed top-dog of the smartphone world, but the general public’s view of the smartphone industry, especially that of its younger members, seems to be progressing beyond its totally Apple-centric beginnings.
Just look around at portable devices on public transport, which you tend to do if you work in the tech industry. There appears to be a greater diversity of handsets than even just 12 months ago. Not only that, but a year or two ago when one saw a diverse range of phones, the Android handsets were often lower-end models, suggesting that they were purchased for their price, rather than their appeal. Now, top-end Android handsets like the HTC One X and Galaxy S3 abound.
Moreover, Android seems to have found its niche in the tablet market with the Kindle Fire and Nexus 7 tablets. Only time will tell if this will be sustainable, as Apple has recently started targeting said markets with the iPad Mini.
4G LTE is Becoming Common
4G LTE was one of the most exciting prospects in Australian tech a year ago, now it’s downright everywhere. 4G offers incredible wireless broadband speeds, often exceeding or even doubling that of ADSL2+ home connections.
By increasing the speed of mobile broadband on smartphones to that of high-quality home connections, smartphones are more useful than ever before. Video clips can load almost instantly, as do images, and web-browsing doesn’t even feel like you’re on the internet at all with 4G, as none of the usual delays are experienced. It’s difficult to convey how much easier smartphone life becomes with increased internet speeds, but we’re sure that once Australia gets used to 4G there will be no turning back.
Optus, Telstra and Virgin Mobile subscribers in supported areas all have access to 4G LTE technologies, assuming that they have a 4G enabled device.
Not just that, but almost every new high-end smartphone coming out seems to have 4G LTE capabilities. The Galaxy S3 4G and HTC One XL were the first two really big names to jump on the 4G bandwagon, with the iPhone 5 later providing the biggest influx of 4G adoption that we’re likely to see for some time. The Nokia Lumia 820, 920 and the HTC Windows Phone 8X are all also 4G enabled devices, meaning that 4G is available across all three major mobile operating systems.
4G is continuing its spread across Australia and, while it’s still hardly everywhere, Telstra has plans to provide coverage for up to 40% of Australian residents before long. Optus also has its plans for 4G expansion. Vodafone will even be bringing its own 4G LTE network out in early 2013, although by then they may be considerably behind the completion in terms of coverage distribution.
So, in summary we have:
- The standard of high-end smartphones progressing to the point where a quad-core 1.4GHz processor and 2GB of RAM is “standard”.
- Smartphone camera design is finally heading in a direction where we might see the end of cheap consumer dedicated cameras in the next few years
- The tablet market is finally showing signs of following the smartphone market in to a less Apple-centric model
- Microsoft has totally changed its business model in order to keep up with modern tech trends
- Windows Phone 8 is in its early stages and is yet to prove itself, although initial impressions seem positive
- Nokia has a chance of getting back in the game, making some of the best smartphones where a year and a half ago it was making some of the least attention-worthy
- Still waiting on BlackBerry to release BB10 and shake up its product
- There appears to be a shift in the general public’s view of Android
- 4G LTE is vastly improving wireless broadband speeds in many areas
Despite being tech enthusiasts of long-standing, the rate at which progress advances is still often staggering. We suggest you take a look at last year’s article, or at least the final summary, and compare it to this one.
It’s easy to forget how quickly things move when you’re caught up in the flow. So every once in a while it’s useful to take a step back and really look at the tech world with the eyes of an outside observer. For us, at least, it helps us appreciate what we have and sparks our imaginations for future things to come.