While smartphones will continue to improve noticeably in processor power, screen quality, and data speeds, battery life is likely to see only minor improvements compared to this year. Image Credit: Bloomberg

For anyone who's walking around with a ‘Siri' enabled iPhone 4S, 2007 may seem like lost in haze of time. But it is in that year that the first iPhone was unveiled and went on to write history of smartphones.

The year 2011 has been a good one for the product category with stiff competition among vendors who are at the same time intent on creating models featuring ever higher screen resolutions and speedier quad-core processors and graphics processing units (GPUs).

Click here to see the features and market share of the rival smartphones (pdf)

All of which will continue in 2012 and even lead to a year of "mobile ascendancy", according to IDC. Mobile devices will surpass PCs in both shipments and spending, while mobile apps, with 85 billion downloads, will generate more revenues than the mainframe market.

Put together, vendors will be able to build smartphones that will put in the shade all current offerings. The challenge will be to implement the hardware improvements in a way that won't leave consumers even more disappointed with battery life than they are today.

While this year brought the arrival of the first smartphone equipped with LTE (Long Term Evolution) and NFC technology, 2012 will see those with improved battery performance.

It is reported that Apple's iPhone in the future also intends to add NFC features. RIM, Nokia and Samsung have already introduced NFC-enabled models.

According to IMS Research, the number of NFC-enabled phones shipped in 2011 totalled 35 million. The enabling of other cellular handsets will drive that number to nearly 80 million by the end of 2012.

Despite ups and downs for some vendors and operating systems, larger screen sizes are one of the hardware trends which have prompted Samsung to come out with the Galaxy Note's 5.3-inch screen. There are a host of products whose screens measure between 3.5 and 4.7 inches. The iPhone already has lots of pixels, but the screen size has remained at 3.5 inches. However, along with LTE, the next iPhone 5 is expected to have a bigger screen.

But that doesn't mean smartphones have no room left for innovation. It can be argued that screen and the overall size have reached a practical maximum, which means vendors have to find another performance metric to entice users to pick up a new handset.

Changing landscape

According to Ashraf Fawakherji, General Manager of Telecommunications Group at Samsung Gulf Electronics, the technology landscape will continue to change driven by factors such as a developed infrastructure, higher broadband speeds and growing consumer demand for the latest devices.

He said some of the trends that consumers can look forward to next year within the smartphone segment include changes in design, improved battery performance and screen sizes. In addition, 2012 will see the technical integration of various broadband technologies.

Higher resolution is a likely candidate. Recent arrivals like the LG Nitro HD and the Galaxy Nexus have already made the leap to a screen resolution at 1280x720 pixels, and more are reportedly on the way.

Next year, the 720p resolution will be a standard high-end feature. Many manufacturers are trying to devise methods to make small screens with a resolution of 720p.

Big screens have the unfortunate side effect of using a lot of power, but upcoming announcements will focus on advancements in making displays more energy-efficient, according to Geoff Blaber, an analyst at CCS Insight.

Weak processors have given way to dual-core powerhouses. Smartphone cameras are now so capable, the best of them make owning a point-and-shoot camera redundant. The top-motion animation film Gulps and Olive were shot using Nokia N8 phones with 12 mega pixel camera.

"Technology is moving so quickly and cell phones are really going to be the thing that does everything eventually," Hooman Khalili, director of Olive, had said.

But Fawakherji and general manager for Motorola Mobility, Middle East and Africa Raed Hafez echoed in the same voice that we believe the smartphone will become a converged device making lives easier, it should not aim to replace professional digital cameras, which are proving increasingly popular among consumers. The two products serve very different consumer needs.

And display resolutions exceed the limits of the human eye's ability to distinguish separate pixels.

Clock speeds will also increase next year. But improved performance won't come from just faster main processors.

The GPU will also play a more important role in upcoming products, according to Blaber. ARMs Mali-T604 is one of the GPUs that will be used in high-end smartphones next year. It can also use four cores and offers five times the performance of previous Mali graphics processors, according to ARM.

Higher clock speeds

Tegra 3, a four-core processor and the world's first quad-core mobile chip, will bring about a qualitative improvement in multi-tasking, web browsing and applications performance.

"Qualcomm is developing quad-core Snapdragon processors, which will be ready in 2012," said Jay Srage, President of Middle East and Africa, Qualcomm.

"They will be part of the S4 class of Snapdragon processors. Still, the number of cores is not what's important when it comes to mobile device performance. What matters most is how you integrate all parts of the processor — the CPU, graphics processor, software and other components — and make them work together efficiently," Srage said.

"The smartphone industry is very much running in parallel to the computer industry. The fact that processors are moving from single core to eight cores on the chip will be repeated in the mobile industry but at a faster rate. To this end, we will absolutely see quad-core chips next year," Hafez said.

According to Fawakherji, higher clock speeds and the use of dual and quad core technology are definitely two areas of interest for smartphone manufacturers. By incorporating chipsets that offer higher processing speeds, smartphone vendors such are able to develop devices that maximise run-time efficiency leading to noticeably smoother, faster and longer multi-tasking than ever before resulting in a more enjoyable experience for consumers.

The smartphone industry will mirror the computer industry, Hafez said, adding that if we go back a few years, the computer industry was on a clock-speed race. "At one point, this stopped and there was a realisation that pushing the clock was no longer a differentiation or a means to make an impact with the consumer. Instead, there was a move towards multiple cores. We're going to see the same thing happening for smartphones where, for example, a 1.GHz quad-core chip will be faster than a 2 GHz single core chip."

Following the launch of Siri, Google and Microsoft are no doubt scrambling to bring more voice controls to their respective smartphone platforms. As for Siri, there's a slight chance that Apple will open up the virtual personal assistant to third-party apps in 2012. More likely, however, the company will expand Siri's functionality in some fashion.

Augmented reality is another feature we have seen on a few apps here and there, but it will become a standard feature in the phones of tomorrow, as opposed to being limited to one-off apps such as Google Goggles or the Layar browser.

While smartphones will continue to improve noticeably in processor power, screen quality, and data speeds, battery life is likely to see only minor improvements compared to this year. The major technological breakthroughs that could keep users from worrying about getting through the day are still in the laboratory; so the best hope for better battery life lies in optimisation.

Smartphone trends for 2012 will be a highlight of the Consumer Electronics Show, which starts on January 10 in Las Vegas, and the Mobile World Congress, which takes place at the end of February in Barcelona.

Android rules the roost

Dubai: Android took the crown in the war of operating systems in 2011. But things are going to take a dramatic turn with the launch of Windows Phone 7.

With Nokia Lumia's launch in major markets expected in the first quarter of next year, Windows market share will be ticking upwards from the current 5.6 per cent, behind Symbian in fifth place.

But by 2012 it will jump to 10.8 per cent, switching places with Symbian. And three years later in 2015, it will have surpassed iOS and Research in Motion, reaching 19.5 per cent market share, taking the No 2 spot in world market share.

Gartner predicts that RIM will fall from a 2010 peak market share of 16 per cent to 11.1 per cent by 2015. It also predicts that Apple iOS will rise this year, but fall by 2015.

Google's Android will rise from a narrow lead of 22.7 per cent in 2010 to a dominant 49.2 per cent market share by 2012. Apple's iOS will remain the second biggest platform worldwide through 2014 despite its share decreasing slightly after 2011.

Gartner analyst Roberta Cozza explained the Windows Phone growth, noting that Nokia will be able to sell Windows Phones at lower prices than many smartphones sold today and will sell them globally through an extensive sales channel.

Reduced price

Nokia will also retain its reputation for solid smartphone hardware in the Windows Phone alliance, she added. "All the strengths Nokia still has will play a role" in Windows Phone moving to second place in 2015, Cozza said.

With Apple's iPhone 3GS sticking around for another year, we'll probably see some strong competition in the sub-$50 (Dh183.50) range and not just with Android but Windows-enabled phones as well.

Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer has said that "the cheapest phones will be Android and we are trying to lower the production cost of smartphones, thereby reducing the sales price".

"By 2015, 67 per cent of all open OS devices will have an average selling price of $300 or below, proving that smartphones have been finally truly democratised," said Cozza.

"As vendors delivering Android-based devices continue to fight for market share, price will decrease to further benefit consumers.

"Android's position at the high end of the market will remain strong, but its greatest volume opportunity in the longer term will be in the mid- to low-cost smartphones, above all in emerging markets."