Roll on 2021! How hardware innovation has stalled, and how software innovation continues to change our lives.

Nowadays, two thirds of people in the UK aim to keep their phones for a minimum of 3 years, and one in five will keep it for 5 years or more1. Many reasons have been given, including cost of phones increasing, availability of cheaper SIM-only tariffs and maturing of markets. But, to me, unboxing a new phone demonstrates the biggest issue. You may well get a new device with smaller screen borders, a better camera, or you might unlock it in a different way, but fundamentally it’ll be the same as your last phone.
 

Foldable Phones

Samsung has pioneered a new technology in foldable phones that others have since picked up. This is a really major departure, and one that excites me. Suddenly mobile phone apps will have large screen areas to work on, and that will change the way we approach app design, making everything that came before it obsolete. We’ll have to wait a bit longer before this is realised: the technology isn’t quite ready yet, being both expensive and fragile. But I expect to see leaps forward in 2021.
 

5g Rollout 2021

We will see the rollout of 5G gather pace this year, and hardware will follow suit. Many, but not most, new phones are 5G compatible, and eventually 5G will become as ubiquitous as 4G is now. By the end of 2021 I imagine practically all new smartphones will be 5G capable. But 5G’s future dominance is unlikely to force consumers to upgrade: though 5G is a genuinely exciting technology which promises some life-changing abilities, much of it will come in later phases. So for now its benefit over 4G is limited to improved speed which is not a must-have to those already able to receive a good 4G signal. (And those with poor 4G reception probably won’t do any better with 5G anyway). Perhaps ironically, 5G as it stands relies on 4G technology and so practically guarantees the future longevity of 4G.
 

AI Assistants

Otherwise, this lack of innovation in hardware has contrasted with amazing leaps forward in software. The last few years have brought huge advances in AI-powered assistants, for example. I can now reliably dictate to my Google Assistant even in a relatively noisy environment. Those noticeable improvements in picture quality of smartphone photos are mostly down to software processing technologies, not improvements in lenses (although there have been some). The fact that Google Pay and Apple Pay can now be used for all transactions, not just small ones of under £30, means that I no longer regularly carry a wallet. Some of these advancements really are life-changing. Much is down to machine learning and AI techniques, and who knows where that will take us in 2021?

So it is with excitement that I start 2021. I’m hoping that we lay the groundwork for foldable phones, and I’m watching with real interest the developments in software technology. Who knows what the game changer will be – the best ideas always come out of left field.

1 https://yougov.co.uk/topics/technology/articles-reports/2020/05/07/45-smartphone-owners-would-rather-upgrade-repair