COVID-19 notwithstanding, smartphone manufacturers have desperately needed the advent of 5G to re-invigorate smartphone sales and the excitement about the next big thing for mobile devices.
When I think of smartphone innovation, I think to the first reveal of the iPhone in 2007 and its great promise of bringing three disparate devices into one.
"An iPod, a phone, and an internet communicator. An iPod, a phone … are you getting it? These are not three separate devices: This is one device, and we are calling it iPhone," the late Steve Jobs said in his iconic keynote.
Since then, we've seen a slew of new innovations: wireless charging, improved fingerprint scanners, and water/dust proofing come to mind.
Innovation has certainly not stopped, not at all. It's just that as a consumer, I haven't felt wowed by smartphone innovation in quite a while. The closest I have been recently is with foldable screen technology, like that on the ridiculously expensive Samsung Fold and Huawei Mate X. Earlier, it was with the iPhone 4S in 2011, which was the first iPhone to integrate Apple's newly acquired voice assistant Siri. These, I felt, were among some of the most notable leaps for smartphones in recent years.
In retrospect, however, I've realized that these supposedly ground-breaking innovations proved less impactful than both advertised and than I had perceived. Siri and the other voice assistants that followed like Google Assistant and Microsoft's Cortana felt more like a gimmick than an actual feature you'd use multiple times everyday. It was perfect to boot for that one time where you're knuckles-deep into a bowl of chicken wings or when you've missed that one right turn. Voice assistants were more 'innovative,' so to speak, when they're the central feature, like with Alexa and the Amazon Echo.
Foldable screen technology, on the other hand, eventually dawned me as an overly expensive and cumbersome grasp at straws by phone manufacturers looking for the next big thing for smartphones. At the start, as far as the Samsung Fold was concerned, it was dead on arrival with easily damaged screens and confusing user directions. Samsung has since improved its line of foldable phones (now dubbed the Galaxy Z series), but it was bit too late to get me excited.
COVID-19 impact on sales
Now, finding myself locked at home thanks to COVID-19, I realize that the pandemic's damage to smartphone manufacturers has been two-fold. COVID-19 not only hurt sales, but it also led to a delay in the deployment of 5G networks across many regions in the world, something manufacturers have desperately hinged their bets on.
"In 2020, affordable 5G phones were expected to be the catalyst to increase phone replacements, but it will not be the case," research firm Gartner said earlier this year. "5G phones are now forecast to represent only 11% of total mobile phone shipments in 2020."
“The delayed delivery of some 5G flagship phones is an ongoing issue,” said Annette Zimmermann, research vice president at Gartner. “Moreover, the lack of 5G geographical coverage along with the increasing cost of the 5G phone contract will impact the choice of a 5G phone.”
Declines in sales are mostly in the double digits across the board, which shouldn't be surprising. COVID-19 has spared few industries, and this isn't one of them.
However, 2019 wasn't too great either, with worldwide smartphone sales declining 2%, according to Gartner. This was the first time since 2008 that the global smartphone market had experienced a decline. Something was clearly amiss.
“2019 was a challenging year for smartphone vendors, primarily due to oversupply in the high-end sector in mature markets and longer replacement cycles overall,” Zimmermann had said in January.
The trend of longer replacement cycles had been building over the past few years. In 2018, phone lifetimes averaged at 2.5 years, as per Gartner data. In 2020, this number has bumped up to 2.7 years.
The need for 5G
The data all points to 5G being the saviour smartphone manufacturers have been waiting for, with experts like Zimmermann having predicted a "rebound" in the market "with the introduction of 5G network coverage" and 5G-ready phones back before the world had learned about COVID.
The jump from 4G to 5G compatibility might seem trivial to the uniformed, but the truth is quite different. The potential the new network standard brings with it is massive for smartphone devices.
5G represents a marked shift from the previous generation of cellular network standard, bringing with it ultra low latency, super fast download and upload speeds, and an overall greater user experience. It allows for concepts like the Internet of Things to truly come to life, creating interconnected and smart cities improving the lives of its citizens. Smartphones will play a major part in this vision for the future.
More than ever, smartphones will be at the center of our lives. In a 5G world, the smartphone will be one of "the primary interaction tools used by people in a connected environment including cars, homes, and workplaces,"
"Equipped with the aforementioned technologies stated above, the smartphone gathers context data about the user (e.g., geolocation, temperature, health conditions, etc.) and interacts seamlessly with various devices using different types of connections such as Bluetooth, near-field communications (NFC), Wi-Fi, etc," Mehdia Ajana El Khaddar and Mohammed Boulmalf explain in an essay titled Smartphone: The Ultimate IoT and IoE Device. "Therefore, the smartphone can be considered as the user’s ultimate device for IoT and IoE interactions and control."
In the meantime, however, as it will take time for cities to deploy 5G networks and for more IoT devices to be introduced into our lives, 5G will serve to amplify existing smartphone services. You'll stream Netflix in 4K seamlessly, download apps and games in seconds, perform delay-free voice and video calls, and enjoy low latency online gaming. For the short term, these are enough of a sell to create an increase in demand for 5G-enabled devices, and manufacturers realise that.
Now more than ever, amid slowing innovation, 5G is desperately needed.