Diarmaid Condon.

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Eighty percent of the planet's population owns one, so where to next for the smartphone?

Are the days of widely exciting new products like the iPhone over? Have we reached peak smartphone innovation, asks Diarmaid Condon.

Eighty percent of the planet's population owns one, so where to next for the smartphone?

ALTHOUGH the smartphone is practically ubiquitous in the Western world, it is easy to forget it really only became a widespread consumer product in 2007 with the launch of the iPhone by Apple.

Smartphones have been with us in one guise or another since the launch of the IBM Simon in 1994, but it was Apple, with the phenomenal market share and brand recognition of the iPod music player behind it, that really brought it to the fore as a challenger to a mobile phone market then dominated by Nokia.

Since then, phones using Google’s Android operating system — the software running the phones — has dominated and the smartphone market has exploded worldwide. In 2014 a staggering 1.3bn units were sold, according to the International Data Corporation.

Android shipments accounted for more than 84% of market share in the third quarter of 2014. Samsung is the world’s largest phone maker with 23.7% of the market; Apple has 11.7%, and non name-brand suppliers to vast markets such as China and India account for just under 50% of the overall figure, many of them using an open variant of the Android operating system.

Adrian Hopkins of the 3XE Digital Conference says smartphone penetration is at 61pc in Ireland, a 50% increase over 2013 and, on average, smartphone and tablet owners spend three hours a day online browsing personal interests.

The smartphone has had a number of years of incredible innovation, but lately there is a sense of a lull in the pace of development.

Lisa Duggan, country manager for HTC Ireland, agrees that the rate of change has plateaued somewhat but she still believes there is a lot of scope to make devices better.

As we’ve seen over the past few years, much attention is being paid to using the phone as a hub device.

“We will be spending a lot of our time focusing on ‘smart’ products that will complement our lives and smartphones,” says Duggan.

Towards that aim, HTC has released its phone companion RE camera, allowing for a far more flexible photographic and video experience.

Tech visioneer Ben Evans says the increasing sophistication and application of sensors will have a far bigger impact on the mobile devices market than on the PC market. Sensors on our phones could link up to our security systems, fridges, body, tvs, heating systems, etc.

Carolina Milanesi, chief of research at Kantar Worldpanel, says: “From an industry dynamic perspective, the game will move from a single device to a multi device offering.

"Vendors have started moving to new devices — first tablets then wearables, then imaging and VR (virtual reality) — both to find added revenue streams and deepen the loyalty of their customers.”

She says we can also expect a longer lead-in time to bring new technologies to market. “As technology innovation slows down — not necessarily in terms of new ideas but more in terms of how long it takes to bring truly new and disruptive innovations to market — vendors need to look at software and services to add value to their hardware.”

Profiting from mobile platforms is now a key focus for businesses. Adrian Hopkins says advertisers have doubled their outlay on mobile marketing in the last year alone. The push to monetise mobile content and sell more from mobile platforms is likely to ramp up significantly.

The trend toward ‘wearable tech’ is also gathering momentum, aside from Google’s announcement that it is to curtail its famed Google Glass project. Duggan says the main areas of focus for HTC right now are photography, along with health and fitness.

Also expect to see a lot more activity in online payment systems. Apple made a giant stride into this market with its Stripe-backed Apple Pay system on the new iPhone 6 late last year and Google Wallet has existed for some time, but gained little traction. Credit and debit cards are technologically prehistoric.

The potential profits for manufacturers were mobile phone payments to gain mass market acceptance would be enormous.

In his presentation at Bloomberg’s ‘The Year Ahead’ event (http://bit.ly/1oYJEHn), Ben Evans said this is the first time that a single technology (the smartphone) has been sold to four-fifths of the earth’s population. “Everybody now has a pocket supercomputer… You can get an Android phone now for $35, this takes computing everywhere.

“Mobile apps now account for the majority of all time spent online in the USA, not just the majority of time spent on mobile. Interaction models are totally unsettled, Google and Apple have not remotely finished innovating.”

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