This week, Chinese smartphone-maker Vivo released a video calling out one of the brand’s signature innovations from 2018: a pop-up camera that extends from the top of the phone’s metal frame and eliminates the need for a cut-out notch in the display. Vivo calls this particular feature the Elevating Front Camera, which makes it sound like it hovers above the phone in an act of magic. In reality, the camera behaves like the mechanical flash module on a digital camera.
The Vivo video primarily highlights last year’s tech, and since it’s already late January, seems belated. But it also included another message—that the company plans to “take the Elevated Front Camera further in 2019!” Based on [early reports],(https://www.tomsguide.com/us/vivo-apex-phone-design-release-date,news-29187.html) this year’s innovations might just be a phone without ports. Your new Vivo smartphone might look like something akin to a large pebble, or a bar of metallic soap.
Smartphones, it seems, have gotten weird. And they’re only going to get weirder in 2019. Our glass slabs will be punctuated by pop-out cameras, foldable displays, hole-punched notches, and invisible fingerprint sensors. These features will be marketed as innovations. Some will be innovative. Some will just be weird, in the way that tech inevitably feels forced when design decisions are borne out of a need to make mature products appear exciting and new.
"Everyone is making foldables out to be the next savior of the industry, and that only makes sense if they can deliver on the value."
Wayne Lam, principal analyst at IHS Markit
Just look to foldable displays. The concept isn’t new, but Chinese display maker Royale kicked off the most recent hype cycle at the end of October when it debuted a 7.8-inch flexible display named FlexPai. A week later, electronics giant Samsung showed off its own concept for a folding phone, one that “fits neatly inside your pocket” and then unfurls into a 7.3-inch display. The company declined to share a timeline for when the concept phone will be released, but Samsung’s annual flagship phone event is scheduled for next month, and it’s possible we’ll see more demos of the folding phone in addition to a new Galaxy smartphone.
Then last week, The Wall Street Journal reported that the Motorola Razr phone will make a comeback this year , evolving from a flip phone into a high-priced smartphone with a foldable display. (WIRED emailed Lenovo-owned Motorola for comment; a spokesperson responded with an animated “shrug” emoticon.) Chinese smartphone maker Oppo is also reportedly planning to unveil a folding smartphone at MWC Barcelona next month.
Flexible display tech has clearly gotten good enough that smartphone makers believe it can be deployed in a mass market consumer product. During the Samsung event, company executives suggested that the “tech has improved to the point where it’s possible to fuse an ultra-thin screen onto the foldable design,” as WIRED’s Arielle Pardes wrote.
But those technological leaps don’t automatically create a use case. Wayne Lam, principal analyst at IHS Markit, says he sees two paths for foldables: a larger foldable, in which a phone-like device turns into a 7- or 8-inch tablet; or “making the thing smaller—you take a phone and fold it in half, or you wrap it around your wrist and it becomes a wearable.” Either path presents challenges in terms of cost, value proposition, even ergonomics. “Everyone is making foldables out to be the next savior of the industry, and that only makes sense if they can deliver on the value, if you can truly replace your phone and your tablet,” Lam says.
Even non-bending phones will include features driven by display tech this year. If 2017 and 2018 were the years of the notch, that unsightly cutout at the top of screen-suffused smartphones, then 2019 might be the year of eliminating it. Vivo’s pop-up camera is just one example of moving parts around in order to make the most of an edge-to-edge display. Huawei has attempted to minimize the notch on its new View 20 smartphone by shrinking the cutout—it now looks like it’s been hole-punched in the display—and moving it to the left-hand side of the phone. Samsung’s upcoming Galaxy flagship phone is rumored to have a hole-punched face as well.
Edge-to-edge displays have also forced the hands (or, ahem, fingers) of innovators when it comes to bio-authentication. Once upon a time, our smartphones had chins, which were useful for housing fingerprint sensors. Now that displays stretch to all four corners of a phone, there’s no place to put that sensor, except for under the displays themselves. Which is exactly what Vivo, Oppo, and Xiaomi have done recently, and is something we’ll almost certainly see from other smartphone makers this year.
The big question isn’t whether these new features are actually innovative or not. On some level, phone makers have always experimented with new tech—or at the very least, with miniaturizing components that were originally designed for much larger products. To Lam's earlier point, if the innovations provide a real value, they find a home. The question to ask as smartphones reach increasing levels of weirdness in 2019 is: why? Or maybe: why now?
The short and lazy answer might be that smartphones have gotten boring. Most now have good cameras, decent battery life, lovely displays, and a swath of software features optimized to run on even low-end hardware. Consumers aren't seeing the need to upgrade to a new phone when they’ve all started to look and perform the same, and when internal boosts, while legitimate in some cases (like Apple’s seven-nanometer A12 Bionic chip), are described in uninterpretable tech terms.
As a result, smartphone makers are doing everything they possibly can to make smartphones seem exciting again. "At a functional level, there is not much basis for differentiation," David Webster, partner at international design firm IDEO, wrote in an email to WIRED. "This is when semiotics become more significant. Which brand tells the most aspirational story? Whose device is the most powerful prestige symbol? The iPhone was obviously the winner for a long time on that front, but now they all look pretty much the same from the other side of the room."
It's not just that smartphones are boring, or that they've plateaued. Sales of smartphones have actually declined (and so, again, smartphone makers are going to do everything they can to hawk their wares). According to research firm IDC, global smartphone shipments were down 6 percent in the third quarter of 2018, from 373.1 million to 355.2 million units. That IDC report marked the fourth consecutive quarter of year-over-year declines. In December, the same research firm said it expected worldwide smartphone shipments to show 3 percent declines for the whole year, from 2017. And in early January, Apple cut its revenue guidance for the first quarter of 2019, citing macroeconomic factors and slowing iPhone sales in China as a key reason.
The reason for slowing sales may ultimately be a combination of the aforementioned factors: trade tensions, economic softness, and a resistance from buyers to upgrade every year. As IHS Market's Lam points out, the smartphone market is an increasingly bifurcated one. Right now, “there’s China, and then there’s the rest of the world," he says. Experimentation from Chinese phone makers is great for the market; it's also an indicator that the market is "kind of stalling, too."
But Lam doesn’t think these very real headwinds will keep certain smartphone makers from trying. “I would probably characterize it as a Cambrian Explosion, with so many new species coming out, and they’re trying every little thing," Lam says. “The Chinese market is nothing but risky or ambition in their designs.”
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