The internet has been abuzz with the recent reveal of the Apple iPhone X and launch of the iPhone 8. As has been customary, fans lauded the new iteration, while detractors criticized the new models as being “evolutionary.” Despite the cynics, experts are predicting that preorders will exceed 50 million units.
Apple’s biggest rival, Samsung, has also been busy, releasing the Galaxy Note 8 to rival the iPhone 8. Samsung’s Galaxy S8 enjoyed strong sales since its release last March, contributing to the company’s much-needed rebound following the travesty that was last year’s Note 7. Other smartphone manufacturers such as Huawei, Oppo and Vivo are also enjoying major growth. Research firm Gartner measured a 9.1 percent year-on-year growth of global smartphone sales in Q1 of this year.
Ultimately, purchases of these newly released devices contribute to the growing number of mobile devices in circulation globally. Ironically, however, with such growth, the sustainability of the global smartphone ecosystem now becomes a more urgent concern.
The latest in technology development has brought several smartphone industry life cycle issues to the fore. Here are a few things that the industry needs to solve in a hurry if it’s going to continue to thrive.
1. Adjusting the Pace of Innovation
It’s easy to argue that many of the recent developments in smartphones, even with the premium models, have fallen short of being revolutionary. The progress to bigger screens, faster processors, higher-res cameras and bigger storage capacities are all but expected.
It may even seem that manufacturers are holding back, only introducing certain technologies in yearly updates that have already been available for some time. For example, the iPhone X will feature an OLED, bezel-less design, wireless charging and facial recognition – all features that have already been rolled out for other brands. Some even question the rationale behind this pace of development as being a money grab for tech giants, forcing consumers to upgrade and buy new models yearly.
The next big question is: What revolutionary technology will eventually replace smartphones altogether? Phones may have gotten physically bigger, but the interface has stayed pretty much the same. Biometrics and connectivity offer interesting possibilities, but wearables such as glasses and watches have yet to truly challenge phones. Virtual reality is also slowly gaining traction. However, it appears that the next big thing has yet to be determined.
It is critical for manufacturers and developers to innovate toward making people’s digital lives better, faster and easier. They should be redefining user experiences and not just introducing “nice to have” features that may serve little use.
2. Lack of Universal Standards
Unfortunately, there are still no set mobile phone tech standards that span manufacturers. Consider the situation with wireless charging solutions as a microcosm. Wireless Power Consortium's “Qi,” for example, powers Apple, LG, Haier and several other leading smartphone brands. AirFuel Alliance, on the other hand, is the standard for Samsung and Huawei, while other big businesses like Duracell, Lenovo and HP are also on board for AirFuel Alliance's wireless charging accessories. It’s Betamax vs. VHS all over again.
And even when there’s a strong consensus on how the technology should operate, subjectivity leaves a lot of leeway for judgment calls. For example, a user complaint regarding screen brightness or color vibrancy of screens may be hard to evaluate without testing, since each individual has a unique perception of light and color. In the very least, there must be a way for stakeholders to be able to test smartphone functionalities objectively and have these diagnostic tools widely available.
Asset Science develops diagnostics tools that manufacturers, technicians, retailers and even end users can use to check mobile phone functionality and performance. John Sheeran, the company’s CEO, asserts that the best quality checks are those that simulate actual use.
“To reduce the number of faulty units sold, we need to be testing the devices thoroughly, in the same manner that the user interacts with them to truly understand that the device is meeting the expected functionality,” he said. “Often, it is not as simple as just testing and shipping, unless we test as the user uses, we can never be guaranteed that the device is fit for purpose as it leaves the factory or the store.”
3. Security and Privacy Concerns
Today’s digital lifestyles have prompted most of us to manage huge parts of our lives with our smartphones. Users sync their email, social media and even financial information on their devices. As such, a hacked, lost or stolen phone may expose users to threats of identity theft and fraud.
New smartphone security features now include biometric scanning. However, whether these features actually do what they're supposed to depends on how well designed and developed they are. A recent report from New York University revealed that by using digitally altered fingerprints that serve as “masterprints,” cybercriminals can potentially unlock a good percentage of smartphones that use fingerprint locks. This raises a concern on whether or not biometrics are the way to go for smartphone security.
Leigh-Anne Galloway, cybersecurity lead at Positive Technologies, is a vocal naysayer when it comes to biometrics. “In my opinion, a randomly generated long password is still the most secure way to lock a phone,” she recently noted. “That's not to say it's the most convenient – it is hard to remember, of course – but anything that makes a password simpler for the user, also makes it simpler for hackers.”
Manufacturers and developers must strive, then, to develop a more reliable, less penetrable and yet frictionless method to secure smartphones.
4. Manufacturer Defects and No Fault Found
Among the popular points in the Android vs. iOS debate are reliability and failure rates. A recent report indicated that failure rates on Android devices rose 25 percent worldwide, while iOS devices fell to just 12 percent. Regardless of the Android vs. iOS comparison, the numbers still indicate that a good percentage of phones bought by consumers still don’t operate as intended. This often results in returns that inconvenience consumers and cost retailers.
Smartphone quality can be a hit-or-miss thing. Shoddy quality may be expected with cheaper, off-brand phones, but it should not be the case with the premium models. However, even flagship devices suffer from manufacturing defects, such as the Galaxy Note 7’s exploding battery, or recently, the iPhone 8’s crackling earpiece. With the prices these devices command, consumers deserve better quality control from manufacturers.
Aside from manufacturing faults, another concern in the industry today is the “no fault found” (NFF) issue. This happens when consumers return devices which are then forwarded back to manufacturers for diagnosis, only to be re-certified as operational at the factory. Like all returns, NFFs represent major costs to supply chain stakeholders – particularly retailers under pressure to accommodate requests from customers.
Front-line diagnostics is critical to solving this issue, since it’s the retailers who are best positioned to explain to customers the nature of their concerns.
“A simple test at point of sale would provide two things to the retailer and the customer,” said Asset Science’s Sheeran. “A valid proof of operational functionality of the device, and a baseline for the retailer and customer to engage in, if the device should fail within the warranty period. Too often, both parties have an incomplete understanding of what was bought or sold and the condition that the device was in when it was purchased.”
5. Battery Mortality Issues
Early smartphone adopters may recall adjusting to the relatively short battery lives of smartphones compared to the last generation of mobile phones that smartphones replaced. The old and popular Nokia 3310 could sometimes survive on standby for a whole week without needing a charge.
Today, the battery issue persists. Even larger-capacity batteries struggle to last a full day. However, to be fair, all new hardware components – including the bigger screen, more sensors and various connectivity options – contribute to battery drain. An alternative view is to improve charge times. Most modern phones take an hour or two to charge from full drain.
In response, companies such as StoreDot have joined the rush to develop superior batteries. The company that cracks quick charging may hold the key for the viability of electric technologies that transcend computing and may even support automotive and industrial applications. StoreDot’s quick-charge technology, which uses nanomaterials instead of lithium ion to enable a full charge in just five minutes, has drawn the attention and funding of automaker Daimler as well as Samsung Ventures.
Doron Myersdorf, CEO of StoreDot, believes it’s high time that the industry adopt new standards for charging. “This is a major challenge, because we are breaking the rules of what is known in charging,” he said. “Our focus is to get the mobile batteries to market next year.”
Smartphone manufacturers owe it to consumers to continuously innovate and create reliable products. New features must aim to improve user experience, but must be robust enough not to introduce vulnerabilities to security and privacy. The industry must also look into adopting standards of technology and quality to ensure that customers enjoy an acceptable level of quality, security and reliability.
Otherwise, the manufacturers may be exacerbating the issues that could lead to their own downfall. Ultimately, developments must be oriented toward a sustainable and rewarding symbiosis among stakeholders – users, manufacturers and intermediaries alike.