12 hot trends for mobile phones

twitter-logoNidhi Singal | Print Edition: April 2012

Mobiles have become a necessity for most of us. Today, wherever we go, whatever we do, we have a mobile phone at hand. So much so, that it wouldn't be wrong to say that the handset has become an organ of the human body. But it wasn't so till a few years ago, when these phones were just meant to make voice calls as well as send and receive text messages. Apple launched its iPhone at a time when Bluetooth, calculator and alarm were the most advanced features in the phones.

Android 4.0 gains ground
Google's response to the Android fragmentation was the Android v4.0, or Ice-Cream Sandwich, combining the best of Gingerbread and Honeycomb. Meant for both mobile phones and tablet devices, the new OS features virtual buttons for back, home and apps. Though announced in October 2011, only the Samsung Galaxy Nexus sports the operating system so far.

But the Nexus is available only in select markets. However, things are set to change as a slew of new phones are being announced with Ice-Cream Sandwich on board. While some of the phones are running the latest version of the OS, the rest will have Gingerbread, ready for an upgrade. Since only Nokia is talking about new Windows Phones, Android v4.0 seems to be the hottest OS of 2012.
But that was before the advent of the tablets, which suddenly spoilt the game for the smartphones. The insecurity of losing the battle to the larger screens has transformed the smartphone segment-with manufacturers upgrading from single-core processors to dualcore and bringing in bigger displays and better cameras, all within a year. But this is a race that never ends. Now, we see leading brands going for quadcore processors, mobile money, HD displays, LTE, etc. Here is a flavour of how smartphones will shape up in 2012.

Incoming quad-core
Smartphones are all geared up to compete against the new breed of tablets that are technically an extension of the phones, but with bigger displays. To add sting to smartphones, chipset developers have been continuously working on developing advanced processors. As a result, the new age of smartphones will be powered by quad-core processors. Then, too much power is not all that good, especially since there will be a dearth of applications optimised to benefit from the four cores, at least initially. And then quad-core means the phone will also need a battery which is up to the task. While the first wave of quad-core smartphones have already been announced, these will at the best be trendsetters for the future.

Carrier billing for applications
Since 2008, smartphone users had to register their credit card or debit card details on the device's application store to purchase paid apps. But this is set to change as Microsoft, Google and even BlackBerry are initiating operator billing for apps. With a lot many people still apprehensive about keying in their card details, operator billing will break the glass ceiling as far as purchasing apps is concerned. In certain countries, Google's Android Market (now Google Play) users have the option of billing to their mobile account. Microsoft has worked on a Direct Billing Gateway with Mach that allows users to pay for Marketplace apps through their phone bills. Even Research-In-Motion has announced that more than 40 carriers around the world have deployed integrated carrier billing for their customers on BlackBerry App World.

Bigger, better screens
Apple did introduce a relatively bigger screen size with the launch of the first iPhone, but other manufacturers have started looking beyond the 3.5-inch capacitive display. The new mantra for smartphones display is "bigger, the better" with the standard now hovering between 4 and 5 inches. Providing competition to handsets like the Galaxy Note, the new LG Optimus 4X HD and HTC One X have 4.7-inch displays while the Ascend D Quad and the Ascend D Quad XL sport 4.5-inch displays. Even screen resolution has been in the limelight with companies introducing 1280x720 pixel screens that can offer rich colours and best quality videos and images.

Is Jelly Bean the future?
The natural succession after the Android 4.0 will be Android 5.0, also known as the Jelly Bean. Usually there has been a time gap between two new versions of the Android OS. But this time things look different, especially since Windows 8 is round the corner. With smartphones with Ice-Cream Sandwich still a rarity, the rumours of Jelly Bean are suddenly gaining ground. Latest reports suggest the next version of the Android operating system may release as early as Q2 (April-June) 2012. Recently, Asus confirmed it would be the first to offer the update.

Better camera?
Along with better processors and bigger displays, the cameras in smartphones too have been in the limelight of late. Surprisingly, instead of the megapixel war, the focus seems to have shifted to technology that can enhance images as well as the process of capturing them. Nokia recently cornered the headlines with the 808PureView with its unprecedented 41MP sensor to capture beautifully clear and sharp images at the regular resolution of up to 8 MP. HTC, meanwhile, has used technology to reduce the time taken to click a snap on smartphones to 0.7 seconds. Planning to buy a digital camera, anyone?

Cheaper Smartphones
Smartphones will no longer be the preserve of the rich. While operators and Indian handset manufactures are already trying to bring in affordable smartphones, Airtel CEO Sunil Bharti Mittal has announced that he wants smartphone prices to drop to below $50. This price point is about half of what Android smartphones are currently selling for. Although there will be a huge difference in terms of the hardware and performance of high-end and low-end smartphones, Intel is working on a 1GHz processor using which even flagship phones would cost around $150. The fact that the chipmaker has tied up with Lava in India could be an indicator to where the market is headed. Time for democratising the smartphone.

NFC to get mainstream
Near Field Communication, or NFC, has been in the news for a couple of years. But then, like Bluetooth, NFC too will take some time to go mainstream. For this, the basic requirement is the existence of an ecosystem of handsets and services. Even as companies work on applications, an increasing number of handsets are becoming NFC enabled. While the final goal is on utilising the technology for mobile payments, which will take some time to materialise, this technology is already being used to initiate secure and quick data transfer within a close range. The technology will also come in handy to fetch instant information, by tapping against an NFC tag. Meanwhile, NFCenabled SIM cards have started making their debut.

LTE, or Long Term Evolution, is also creating a lot of buzz. While some companies are already testing LTE (or "4G") networks, even running pilot projects, some top-end models have started including this as a standar connectivity option. But not all smartphones are LTE-enabled as some chips don't yet support the technology. For instance, nVIDIA's Tegra 3 quadcore processor does not have LTE, the company has announced partnerships with modem chip makers to work on this. But when these smartphones or LTE itself will land in India is anyone's guess, more so since we are still struggling with the slower 3G speeds.

Dual-core to dominate
The transition from single-core to dual-core processors has been anything but easy. Early last year, the first bunch of smartphones were spotted with dual-core processors. Now, making single-core devices a thing of 2011, the dual-cores are becoming mainstream in 2012. Brands such as Sony Ericsson, which did not even announce a single handset with a quad-core processor has managed to stand up tall with dual-cores. Other names like Samsung, HTC and LG are not lagging behind either, highlighting the fact that dual-core smartphones are here to stay, at least a year or even more. Tip: Investing in a smartphone with dual-core processor will be a wise decision.

Goodbye card slots
Many criticised Apple for not including expandable memory card slots in the iPhone and the iPad. But it looks like other companies are also set to follow suite. At the moment, apart from iPhone, only Windows Phone smartphones come without expandable memory slots. Now even Android devices are getting rid of the memory card concept. The recently announced Sony and HTC smartphones don't have one. It seems that even the companies have realised that with the increased inbuilt memory of smartphones, not many make use of up to 32GB expandable card slots.

Mobile money
India might be the second largest mobile market in the world but when it comes to technology we still lag behind. We have NFC-enabled handsets now, but they are not being used for mobile payments. However, the rest of the world is looking at replacing cash and plastic cards with smartphones. Recently, eBay partnered with UK carrier Three to pre-install the native app for shopping on Android phones. Globally, MasterCard has come up with a Pay Pass cellphone trial that comes across as a contactless payment feature to allow cardholders to tap the phone instead of swiping the card.

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