This past week’s news was dominated by Apple struggling to fulfill Wall Street’s expectations, Samsung’s proposal to reinvent itself as a software company and, the coup de grace, Google selling Motorola to Lenovo. All of these events reveal an industry in transition.
Smartphones, as we know, have transformed the mobile experience for consumers but have hardly changed since the iPhone was introduced in 2007. They have become faster, bigger and have more sensors but they remain square, slim screens that in developed markets cost around $400. In this scenario Samsung and Apple have thrived, sucking out 90% of the industry profitability.
Clearly, the future for smartphones lies in the emerging markets where the next 2 to 3 billion devices will be sold and the price point will be closer to $100. So will these two giants still dominate or will Chinese players such as Lenovo, Huawei, ZTE, Coolpad and an army of white label manufacturers take over this space? Is the smartphone/mobile industry about to enter the commoditization phase?
Against this background it was interesting to see that Google is holding on to the Advanced Technology team that is developing the Ara endoskeleton phone design system, which was revealed late last year. Also revealed was a partnership with Phonebloks with the intent of creating an ecosystem of hardware developers to work with the software developers that support Android. The initial offerings will probably not be successful but the following should be taken into consideration: for the past few years chip manufacturers have been producing ever more capable systems on chip designs, two examples being Qualcomm’s Snapdragon that dominates the smartphone space and Intel’s Edison for the M2M and Internet of Things space. With the advent of 3D manufacturing and ever more capable components, the concept of a spine that acts as a connector may be the catalyst for a fundamental rethink of devices.
It is no coincidence that ZTE presented a concept design, Eco-Mobius, at CES 2014 that uses a sliding track enabling users to assemble and disassemble screens, core processors, memory, camera and battery; here the concept of “customize your own device” seems to coincide with a growing interest in wearables. The future may well see the fusion of these two trends with fashion styling enabling devices to fit seamlessly into peoples’ lives.
Discussions around the Internet of Things, Internet of Everything and the Internet of Me are all about the future pervasiveness of mobile connectivity across multiple industries as well as the “always on” digital world we live in. These modular architecture concepts that Google and ZTE are experimenting with will help facilitate this. But, more importantly, since Google excels at building ecosystems, if they succeed in creating an ecosystem of hardware developers to fuse with software companies, the future of mobile will see a complete change. Google may well have seeded the future direction of the industry in a way that only a few of us have foreseen.
Steve Bell, President, KeySo Global