Editorial: What’s “Nexus” for Smartphones?

OK, ignore the pithy title a second and let’s be serious. What is next?  Where do we go from here?

Let’s look at the background. Apple and Google have created and sustained the smart phone market respectively, since it’s coming-of-age era around a 5 years ago.  We can argue about the timings, but the generally understood wisdom is that with the iPhone, Apple changed the game.

Apple launched their iPhone in 2007 to a rapture of still-virginal opposable thumbs.  It brought several key features such as:

  • 3.5″ Capacitive TFT touch screen
  • GPRS & EDGE connectivity along with 802.11g WiFi features
  • Full multi-touch feature set
  • Built-in iPod

These features were widely considered to be game-changers.  With one move they managed to dismiss the Windows Mobile platform as an ageing, handicapped Operating System that was well overdue an overhaul, and became serious contenders for the much coveted business market along with RIM’s Blackberry devices.

Apple also managed to create a brand new market space for developed mobile applications leading to the generalisation of the term “Apps”, widely attributed to their marketing campaign’s natty slogan, “There’s an App for that”. Whilst Apps, or mobile applications were around long before the iPhone, they were expensive to develop and market and as such were expensive for the consumer.  Apple’s iPhone release saw a development initiative not previously seen in the marketplace.  Keyboard warriors and at-home developers from all sides of the globe set about creating their own little empire.  This eventually spawned such ground breaking titles as “Tip Calculator”, “Cut The Rope” and of course “Angry Birds”, where you take control of a bizarre selection of birds, hell bent on revenge against their egg-snatching Green Pig enemies.

Many iterations of the iPhone later, we’re left with the iPhone 4S, which boasts a full range of data connectivity (albeit not fully 4G compatible), 8MP camera capable of recording video at 1080p resolution, up to 64GB of internal storage, a 1Ghz Dual Core processor, and the latest iOS5 operating system.

Enter Google.  With it’s open nature (until Honeycomb that is!), Android, Google’s mobile OS, managed to deploy a generally comparable level of user interface and design to that of the iPhone, but presented it in such a way that encouraged and pricked the interest of a number of leading OEMs.  Android also has a whole internal, and indeed wider external development structure that potentially edges Apple’s in sheer size.

Google showed the world how Android operating systems should be deployed when they introduced the HTC manufactured, Google Nexus One smart phone.
It’s flagship device launched in early 2010 and had, amongst others, the following features:

  • 3.7″ Capacitive AMOLED touchscreen
  • GPRS/EDGE/HSDPA connectivity along with 802.11g WiFi features
  • Full multi-touch feature set via firmware update
  • Widget based home screen UI

In it’s own way, the Nexus One was a game changer also.  The operating system was the star of the show.  It’s multiple-screen based user interface allowed a plethora of widgets to be added to home screens for quick reference and information.  Weather widgets, clock widgets, social media widgets were all included by default.  The list now extends much, much further.  Couple this with the fact that Android is built on a Linux kernel and is open source, and you have a techie’s dream device surely?

With the release of the Nexus One we saw a very clear divide between the two camps start to form.  You either liked the perhaps more polished veneer of the iPhone and the ease of use of it’s user interface, or you yearned for that special widget to display pictures on your home screen and the customisable interface allowing those inclined to “theme” the Android deployment to your heart’s content.

This month saw the launch of Google’s latest flagship device, the Samsung Galaxy Nexus which comes complete with a whopping 4.65″ Super AMOLED capacitive touchscreen, full 4G compatibility, 5MP camera capable of recording video at 1080p, up to 32GB of internal storage, a 1.2Ghz dual core processor, and Android’s latest operating system (4.0) dubbed “Ice-Cream Sandwich”.

I can appreciate the appeal of both, and have indeed owned, or extensively used both camp’s offerings at some point in my life.

So with the two biggest players in the game each releasing their latest and greatest this year, along with Microsoft’s Windows Phone 7 devices starting to gather some pace with the release of the Nokia Lumia 800 device, and also Blackberry still holding down the business phone market with their Curve and Bold devices, where do we go from here?

If you take a quick scan at some of the specifications of these phones, they do everything but make your breakfast for you!  From Near field communications (NFC – McDonalds is a personal favourite place for me to issue contactless payments), to 4G, and the advent of 3D resolutions and recording, what else is there to release?

Are we fast getting to the point of no return whereby devices will start to be tiered back in both price and functionality in a bid to grasp at an alternative and potentially niche market space?  Do we really want or more pertinently need all these “cool” gadgets on our phones when the primary function for most is making and receiving calls and messages or some variation?

My point is this, and it’s taken over 700 words to get here – what else can be done with our devices currently and into the future?

Let me give you some food for thought….

  • Cameras – 8MP cameras are not uncommon, but with advances such as 1080p and 3D recording (urgh!), can we expect much more?
  • Data Connectivity – With 4G taking off in the US, we can expect 4G to come to the UK within a few years (yes, that long), which will improve data speeds once fully deployed.
  • Battery Technology – greater improvements in battery life would be very advantageous, especially for the resource hungry features smart phones have currently and the 4G rollout mooted for a 2013 rollout.
  • Smart phone Projectors – Projection technology has been discussed for a considerable amount of time, and has been trialled for use with keyboards, but potentially could be expanded.

And for some more bizarre and futuristic ideas…

  • Flexible device material – allowing the roll up of a tablet machine or phone?
  • Holographic touch displays – touched on in the Projector tech, but better clarity
  • Eco Friendly – Properly devised Eco-friendly Solar powered devices

Now it might be me, but none of the first list are unique selling points in my opinion, and many of the latter list are just fanciful fairytale technologies currently.  What else can we expect?  Do we need another “game changer” a-la the emergence of the iPhone to kick start the innovation again, or am I simply expecting too much?

One thing is for sure, for now, improvements in speed, screen technology, and storage are the best we can hope for from the new generation of phones.  For some that might well be enough.  For me, I’m sticking with my Nexus One device and hoping for something more radical soon.

Sources: GSM ArenaNFC Wiki

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  • The_Prof

    Great article, definitely a number of things I’ve pondered myself. 

    There’s one thing I have issue with, however;

    “Do we really want or more pertinently need all these
    “cool” gadgets on our phones when the primary function for most is
    making and receiving calls and messages or some variation?”

    I don’t know about anyone else, but I disagree that calls/texts are the primary functions of these devices any more.  I for one spend more time using the apps and games than using the telephony functions by a long way.  In fact, this was almost the case since even before the iPhone, when I had a string of Windows Mobile based phones.  At least it was a close-run thing back then. 

    Whilst talking to people directly is a pretty effective way of communicating, there are so many other modes of communication – most of which can be performed by these devices. 

    I will go as far to say that most of these devices really shouldn’t be called phones at all, as this function is tertiary for most people these days. 

    • Craig

      I, to use your glorious word, “pondered” that as well.

      However whilst they continue to be marketed as Phones, and with the great caller clarity being one of the main benchmarks of mose tech review sites still, I still believe this is the primary function for the majority of the smart phone user base.

      Granted, I myself spend more time responding to emails, texting, using social media, and browsing than perhaps calling….when I do make a call it’s for a prolonged period of time, and it’s irrespective of the 3G signal I have which makes it important (which is still one of my major gripes with carriers…signal deviation!).

      I actually liked the idea of the Microsoft KIN devices.  Niche devices for specialised tasks.  I can see us going that way before too long if we don’t get a game changer.

      Thanks for your thoughts…it’s what keeps sites like us going.  Constant interaction.

  • Moo Moo Head

    Did you miss Siri? surely the biggest plus point of the new IPhone 4S above the improved Camera and hardware?
    Some of the ideas developers have done but hacking into it looks game changing again?
    And that is just hacking, imagine if they were allowed to develop apps that can use it as well….
    Google have the work cut out to catch up on this one, but when they do with their already massive search market lead could be awesome.
    Then you have WP7 lurching in the background, with Microsofts reach and $$$’s they will catch up, when they integrate the mobile OS with the desktop/tablet OS and then next Xbox, your life will be complete.
    Apple should buy Nintendo, then they can compete with Microsoft in the home place as well, they will not do it with the MAC range.
    Imagine a Wii (or equivalent) running IOS and connected to the TV, running your Apps, Siri on your TV and then Google would be playing catch up…. but it wont happen, then again they could use Sony as the only other ones that can compete in the home place, if their finances were better people should be worried, Google could help, the next PS4 running Android???

    • Craig

      Hi Moo (nice name by the way)

      Apologies, but as an editorial piece, I decided against adding Siri.  I’ve done a few twitter posts about how Siri, for me, is not much more than Dragon naturally speaking with a few bells and whistles.  I accept it looks pretty cool and tidy, but I’ve yet to see anyone use it at work (lots of iPhone users) other than to show off about the new features.

  • Patch

    ok here is a question and maybe a test craig for you … why don’t you try using a old phone for a week and see what you miss or don’t….??

    maybe then we would see what really is important on a phone…

    just a thought …

    • Craig

      Patch – I like the idea and given a bit of time I’ll take that idea and run with it.  Off the top of my head my first thoughts are that I’d miss social media aspects (which aren’t really Phone-specific…it’s software and web2.0 improvements) and web/data speed (again, carrier specific which push the tech there)

  • Anonymous

    Great post.

    Personally I’d like to see the pace of change slow down a bit with more effort being concentrated on things like polish and battery life.

    And sorry to be a pedant but the iPhone’s GPRS/Edge support definitely wasn’t a game changer. It was actually quite embarrassing even back then.

    • Craig

      Agreed RE: GPRS/EDGE – it brought Data access however to the maintstream masses rather than us sweaty geeks hellbent on a little more speed.

      • Anonymous

        Can’t argue with that. I miss the pre-iPhone days of T-mobile web n walk. £5 for unlimited data.

        And it was quicker back then when only us geeks used it.

  • I would like to see a device about the size of the current mobile phones, with a 4.6″ max screen which could enable you to edit websites / make music, basically do what your laptop or PC does. This device would also be able, via WIFI display on your TV or PC monitor, so in effect you’d have a portable computer. The hard disk would be 64gb + so we wouldnt need a computer or laptop anymore. Touchscreen being the primary input method with plenty of options for other devices to be connected, prob via wifi as well.

    It would seriously be great to be able to run a full version of Dreamweaver, Music Making package, Office etc on a mobile sized device.

    Things are obviously heading that way with the increased specification, but im sick of the dumbed down interfaces we have to deal with. iOS in particular needs an overhaul as yes its very stable and it just works but its looking tired now and with Windows Phone 7.5 looking pretty hot, I really hope apple produce a new funky interface for their next iPhone.

  • Matt Peddlesden

    We’ve definitely plateau’d on mobile development again.  The world took a big step forwards to get from the traditional “phone+sms” device to the current touch screen multimedia social experience that we have now.  User apps have taken a big step forwards in this generation as well, it’s much more easy to add the functionality that you want to your phone than it has been previously.

    I want to see support for wireless HDMI, so that I can have my screen output at 1080p to a monitor or TV wirelessly.  With wireless keyboard support and some more meaty processors, there’s no reason that my phone can’t be a phone AND my desktop workstation.  I wouldn’t expect to be able to do *more* on the small screen and tiny keyboard though, you can only squeeze so much out of that.  Link it to a proper keyboard and big monitor though and there’s already enough horsepower in most mobiles to function as a credible desktop.

    Looking further in to the future, they are now testing those “heads up display” contact lenses, that would let me do away with the screen on the phone altogether, AND let me do more while out and about.

    Speech recognition is interesting, and Siri is certainly an exceptionally good demonstration of it, it could be that next iterations of other smart phones do more with speech to try and imitate it.  It will be interesting to see where Speech goes – historically there are still not that many people using speech rec in their own home because they feel self concious about it, so how are they going to be out and about? Still… talking to your phone isn’t that unusual… it’s kinda what they’re all about really… so maybe it’s plausible.  Speech *could* be a key factor going forwards, but I’m still not sold on it.  I have speech in my car and if i’m honest the only time I ever use it is to demonstrate it to others.

    Integration with everything we do is going to be key going forwards, and they’re already doing pretty well on that front, but as the internet develops the devices need to find better, slicker, easier and more “deep” ways to integrate them in to what we do.  That’s not so much a game changer, but it’s a baseline for anything going forwards; any device which does not deepen that integration will not do as well as one that does.

    I think for me a big thing, as mentioned above, is that I want to see phone + tablet + desktop all merge in to one platform so that all my information is immediately there on anything I use and the only difference is the amount of horsepower and the input / output devices that are available to interact with it.

    Interesting times.