While smartphones are set to continue fulfilling an important role in our everyday lives, our constant companions could use a makeover. Maybe it’s time for a new form factor. Perhaps this evolutionary branch of the smartphone tree has grown to its full potential, or maybe there are more refinements to come that will elevate this tired look to new heights.
There are some trends in play that may reach their zenith in 2020, but what happens beyond that? What will our phones look like in five years’ time?
Wave goodbye to ports
Ports take up space and constrict phone designs, while also letting in water and dust. Little wonder that phone designers don’t much like them. Apple wasn’t the first to experiment with ditching the standard 3.5mm audio jack, but despite complaints when it erased the headphone port for good in the iPhone 7, almost every other manufacturer has followed suit. Much to the chagrin of audiophiles, the standard headphone port is heading for extinction in phones. Glance at the meteoric rise of Apple’s AirPods and other Bluetooth headphones and you can see what may have driven the decision to ditch that port, but the manufacturers aren’t the only ones to benefit.
Audio quality aside, the shift to a wire-free life is pleasant. When wires are eliminated and the power port joins the headphone jack in the tech graveyard no one is going to mourn tangled cables and the nightly fumble to plug in.
Makers of Android phones, most notably Samsung, have led the way to wireless charging. It took a while to improve, but wireless charging today no longer requires precise placement and it’s getting faster all the time. When Apple jumped on the wireless charging bandwagon its mainstream future was assured — it won’t be long now before we see the first phones without charging ports. Many of us already exclusively use wireless chargers in the home and wireless charging over distance is on the horizon.
“Looking ahead, I think we could even expect to see phones that are just entirely a display and integrate more of the functionalities that buttons and ports have directly into the phone or display itself,” Ruben Castano, VP of Design at Motorola told Digital Trends. “We’ve already seen and done this with fingerprint sensors – they now don’t require a button on the front or back of your phone. Similarly, wireless charging and Bluetooth headphones are becoming more and more popular, eliminating the need for ports.”
Buttons are next to go
Physical buttons get in the way and they present many of the same problems that ports do. The shift from distinct fingerprint sensors to in-screen scanners has been relatively smooth. The latest batch of in-screen sensors work well — they’re comparable to what they replaced in terms of speed and reliability — and once the muscle memory resets you likely won’t miss the old sensors.
Face unlock is another step towards a frictionless phone experience. For all its flaws, the Pixel 4 boasts a combination of presence detection and facial unlock that’s pretty seamless. It sees you coming as you reach for your phone and by the time you’re holding it in front of your face it’s unlocked and ready to go, without the need to press any buttons.
“The same gestures that you do on displays today, you’ll be able to do on any surface material.”
“For phone designers, this is right at the intersection of hardware, software and experiences where physical interfaces turn digital and ‘on-demand’, becoming more contextually aware and learning about user habits over time,” says Castano.
Anyone who used the HTC U12 Plus can be forgiven for debating the merits of a buttonless phone, but this is rapidly developing tech that’s getting close to ready for prime time. Sentons was the company behind the buttonless experience on the pioneering U12 Plus and its technology had already improved by the time we saw it in the touch sensitive shoulder areas of the Asus ROG Phone 2 only six months later. By combining a piezoelectric sensor with ultrasonic waves and a strain gauge it’s possible to detect where your finger is and to measure force based on surface strain.
We tried a Sentons demo at CES 2020 and found that its technology offered surprisingly fine control, though it didn’t work perfectly all of the time. Sentons wasn’t the only company talking up a button-free future in Las Vegas, though.
UltraSense Systems has just emerged from stealth mode with a family of TouchPoint ultrasound sensors. It claims to be the world’s smallest ultrasound system-on-a-chip and has been designed to overcome traditional issues with strain gauge, force touch, and surface acoustic wave technologies which can struggle with some materials and material thickness, and may also require lengthy integration and calibration.
“We’re creating a new touch user interface that uses ultrasound to bring any surface to life,” Daniel Goehl, Chief Business Officer at UltraSense Systems explained to Digital Trends. “Our solution is immune to moisture, oils, dirt. You name it, we can penetrate it. The same gestures that you do on displays today, you’ll be able to do on any surface material.”
By bringing tap and slide functionality to any surface on the phone, UltraSense is looking to make traditional buttons a thing of the past. This move could also allow designers to develop curved edges and waterfall screens that wrap glass right round the device, expanding the display surface and also enabling them to cut down on thick metal frames which don’t work well with 5G antennas.
“Foldable displays will play a large role in the next era of smartphone design.”
Imagine simply tapping on the back of your phone to snap a selfie, or sliding on the side to crank the volume up. Another potential benefit is personal customization to suit you. In the future you will be able to specify what surfaces you want to use for controls and what a single tap, double tap, hold and tap, slide, or multi-touch gesture should do
“Other competing solutions are prone to false triggers,” suggests Goehl. “The frame rates of our sensor are configurable using APIs.”
This means gaming controls could be configured to be highly responsive, while a power key may be much less sensitive to ensure the intention is there before it triggers an action. It could also turn on controls contextually when you need them. These settings would ultimately be up to manufacturers, but Goehl says UltraSense has been working with several top smartphone manufacturers and expects these partnerships to bear fruit by the end of 2020.
The future of screens is unfolding
Smartphone design over the last few years has been heavily driven by the desire for ever bigger screens. Manufacturers have worked to cut down on bezels; they’ve shifted tech into the display; and they’ve hit on some interesting transitional fixes, like motorized pop-up cameras.
It seems inevitable that an increasing amount of components will be hidden underneath the display going forward. But as we see more new phones with screens that would’ve been considered tablet-sized not so long ago, there’s a barrier to break. Folding phones with dual screens, or, more likely, foldable screens may be the answer.
“We think foldable displays will play a large role in the next era of smartphone design,” says Castano. “We are just beginning to see what is possible.”
As phones have grown bigger to accommodate more screen real estate, portability has been forgotten. Instead of creating a normal-sized phone, like Samsung’s Galaxy Fold, that opens to reveal a tablet-sized screen, Motorola is blending retro design to highlight an alternative direction.
“Consumers are looking for a smartphone that offers the portability of a pocket-ready-sized flip phone but that doesn’t compromise on the intelligence and functionality that comes with a larger display,” Castano suggests. “While a clamshell foldable phone may allow for a larger screen size that doesn’t compromise on portability, displays that wrap around the phone can also provide consumers with a larger screen to play with.”
Although there’s a general agreement that folding phones are the next big design evolution, no one has worked out what the ideal form is yet.
A folio design, like the Microsoft Surface Duo seems like an obvious direction, but there are many other possibilities. TCL recently told us it has more than 30 different folding phone prototypes in various stages of development. Most of the major manufacturers no doubt have a similar stable of folding phone concepts in play right now. Who says there has to be one dominant form factor like the candy bar? There may be room in the market for a wide variety of folding designs.
“Experimenting with displays and new form factors will continue to play a major role in the next decade of smartphones,” Castano agrees. “Features like waterfall or borderless displays will become more mainstream, and we’ll see new form factors introduced.”
From general to personal
The flagship smartphone scene is increasingly fragmented today. Where there used to be one clear flagship per company, top players like Apple and Samsung have three or more, now pitched at different price points, and aimed at different people.
As we move away from homogeneous designs intended to appeal to everyone, could we be moving towards more personalized devices with a specific purpose and person in mind? This charge has been led by the surprise success of specialized gaming phones, which have already pushed us towards new innovations like higher refresh rates in screens and touch-sensitive buttonless designs.
“I think we’ll also see a focus on niche smartphones in the coming decade,” says Castano. “The gaming revolution on the horizon will bring to market devices designed specifically for consumers who are looking for a phone that can keep up with their gaming lifestyle in terms of battery life, and also provide them with the best display and sound system. For consumers who live for social media, they may prefer a phone that can deliver professional-grade photography and real-time speeds.”
With stunning photography capability, incredible processing power, and increasingly fast connectivity, many of the top smartphones offer far more than the average person really needs in a phone. As new form factors come into the mix and push prices even higher, manufacturers will have to find ways of making their new wares attractive but also affordable, and greater specialization might be the answer.
Instead of having to shell out big bucks to get the one great feature you want because it’s only available in a phone that does everything, maybe we’ll see more phones that cater to specific interests and lifestyles. Making every phone a generalist, just at different price points, doesn’t allow us any room to choose the specific bells and whistles we want.
The good news is, whatever happens, we’re sure to see some exciting new designs over the next few years. After a long period of advancement for the hardware inside our smartphones it’s time for some brave new styles for the outside.
“Now the challenge is making sure consumers are as ready for this next era of smartphone design as we are,” says Castano.
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- Microsoft Surface Duo review: The future of smartphones is a work in progress