Buy a smartphone today, and it will be out-of-date by tomorrow. That's how fast the smartphone market is changing. New models are being announced at a stunning rate and the Consumer Electronics Show is right around the corner, ready to kick off another cycle of advancements and new devices.
Before we tackle 2012, let's look at what happened in smartphones throughout 2011. We saw the move from single-core devices to dual-core, the acceptance of displays as large as 4.7 inches, the rise of HD screens, and the increase in number of 4G-capable handsets. We also saw the (near) death of the feature phone and an app explosion. Here are the five most important ways the smartphone market changed.
One of the first smartphones to ship with two cores was the Motorola Atrix. It was announced during CES last January. Now, most high-end smartphones ship with two cores. The quick jump from single-core 1-GHz processors to dual-core 1-GHz processors and even 1.5-GHz dual-core processors has been swift. These processors, supplied by the likes of AMD, Broadcom, Nvidia, Qualcomm, and Texas Instruments, have led to dramatic improvements in performance metrics across the board and enable the features that we now take for granted.
Dual-core chips are the reason we have massive 4.7-inch HD displays on our smartphones, which can run 3-D games and capture 3-D video in high definition, while also sipping energy slowly enough that our devices magically still last an entire day. As more platforms and applications become dual-core-aware, the capabilities of our smartphones and apps will only become more powerful.
Massive HD Screens
When Apple introduced the original iPhone back in 2007, people were shocked by the size of the 3.5-inch display. It was huge and beat every other smartphone hands-down. Five years later and Apple hasn't increased the size of its smartphone display--but the rest of the industry has.
[ Want to learn more? Read 5 Biggest Mobile Stories Of 2011. ]
Though plenty of smartphones shipped in 2010 with screens larger than four inches, it didn't become the norm until 2011. Now, most mid-range and high-end smartphones ship with displays ranging from 4.0 to 4.7 inches. Only the cheapest models have screens smaller than four inches.
In addition to the size, screens have jumped to HD. Though the iPhone 4 launched the push to higher-resolution screens, Android smartphone makers have made if their life's mission to one-up each other. We saw a flotilla of qHD (540 x 960 pixel) smartphones announced at CES in January. This year, expect most of them to include full 1280 x 720p high-definition displays. Will they continue to grow in size? Hard to say, but I see a sub-category called phablets on the horizon.
Another "G" Please
Sprint and T-Mobile have been selling "4G" devices since mid-2010. Sprint's 4G comes in the form of WiMax and T-Mobile's 4G comes in the form of throttled up HSPA+. Sprint debuted several new 4G models in 2011, but not too many. T-Mobile shipped probably a dozen 4G models, with some capable of reaching speeds as (theoretically) high as 42 Mbps.
The bigger 4G story, however, comes from AT&T and Verizon Wireless. AT&T's LTE network may be nascent (15 markets, 70 million POPs), but Verizon's is absolutely domineering (190 markets, 200 million POPs). AT&T has three LTE-capable smartphones and a number of other LTE products. Verizon Wireless has at least eight LTE-capable smartphones, in addition to tablets, hotspots, and so on. All four major carriers have made it their mission in 2011 to advance their networks and get faster devices to the market. Now that 4G has finally arrived, 2012 ought to be satisfying as the technology matures.
Millions (and Billions) of Apps
Apple kicked off the app craze in 2008 when it launched the iPhone App Store. Fast forward to 2011 and there are one million active applications for smartphones between the iPhone App Store and Android Market together. The balance is tipped a bit in Apple's favor at the moment in terms of app volume, download volume, and revenue volume, but it is sure to even out eventually.
Google announced in December that Android device users have downloaded 10 billion apps. Apple announced in July that iOS device users have downloaded 15 billion apps. Apple and Google are firmly in the app lead, with hundreds of thousands more apps than their closest competitors--and that's unlikely to change. Apps played a huge role in 2011 and will continue to do so as long as there is money to be made in creating them.
At the start of 2011, there were six major smartphone platforms active in the market, including Android, BlackBerry OS, iOS, Symbian, webOS, and Windows Phone. webOS didn't make it. HP killed off its webOS-based smartphones and tablets, and recently open-sourced the platform. Sure, it will live on in some developer's basement, but it is effectively no longer a viable platform. Symbian, too, more or less bit the dust. While the platform is still being supported by Nokia and receiving periodic updates, Nokia has shifted from Symbian to Windows Phone.
Entering 2012, there are four major players left. BlackBerry is on the ropes, though, as the company scrambles to release a next-generation platform capable of competing with Android, iOS, and Windows Phone. Will 2012 see further consolidation?
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