The state of the smartphone industry in late 2019

When lines between flagship phones blurred

It doesn't really matter if you're an Android enthusiast, iOS lover, google hater, apple hater, Samsung fanboy, Huawei fanboy, or those people who really dig OnePlus phones. The differences between these phones have continued to blur in 2019.

Yes, some of them are better than others in some areas. However, these differences are what you'd expect among great phones. Not the sort of differences you find between mediocre phones and great phones. This state of affairs is to be expected from a maturing industry.

It's almost as if innovation has stalled among some industry leaders, at least according to some pundits. While that sentiment is understandable, it's an oversimplification.

It's the assertion that only physical design changes count as innovation. Surely, there is a host of other often unseen, under-the-hood changes that are arguably more innovative than mere design alterations.

They are building more advanced camera lenses, more powerful and power-efficient chips, more durable glass and more elegant displays, more user-friendly and intuitive software, better inter-device, inter-users and local to cloud integration.

This way, we the end-users now have a sizable catalog of high-end devices to choose from. As competition between industry players continue, this catalog will only get better.

5 competitive areas in the 2019 smartphone industry

  1. Photography

    Looking back to days of iPhone 3GS or say Samsung Galaxy S, we can see how the smartphone camera has grown from the gimmick it once was to something to reckon with.

    The average professional photographer will not be compelled to completely drop the need for high-end DSLR digital cameras. Still, they can now liberally switch to an iPhone 11 Pro, Samsung Note 10 or a Pixel 4 camera often. These mobile cameras are so good that the average person will mistake their photos with those shot using mirrorless professional cameras.

    This way, to the average consumer, the average smartphone covers most of their use cases. Most of the phones are great, some more than others.

    Still photography

    When people pull out their phone cameras, they're in most cases going for a still photo. To capture something that interests them. To photograph a group of friends or family. Or perhaps an animal, some piece of art, or maybe a scenery.

    In all of these situations, they're looking for the following:

    1. A high-resolution image. The more crisp looking, the better
    2. A realistic capture of the subjects they're photographing
    3. The ability to capture their subjects with ease. That's they should be able to zoom in all out with ease while retaining as many details as possible while keeping the integrity (resolution) of a shot.
    4. Ability to shoot under varying light conditions.

    Just before the start of 2020, most high-end phones have better main lenses, ultra-wide-angle lenses, and telephoto lenses. Where all these lenses are not found on the same phone, two of them are present.

    Still photo photography on a smartphone has never been easier, flexible and more robust.

    Low Light Smartphone photography

    The essence of a camera is recording memories. And memories are always happening, irrespective of what hour of the day it happens to be. Perhaps, even better memories happen under the cover of darkness.

    For so long, the solution to nighttime photography was using the flash. I would reckon that most people have had to tolerate the flash because it's all we had.

    Thanks to Google Pixel and Huawei for leading the way with night photography. Samsung and Apple have followed in the way, with really compelling options. As a result, we have something better than the infamous flash.

    Now we can take photos that preserve the low light mode, while at the same time trying to capture as much detail of events as possible.

    Video Photography

    Like still photos, users are looking for the crispest video possible. This also means the ability to take videos and slow-motion videos at different resolutions and frame rates.

    Even more important, is the ability to take this video with a decent amount of stabilization.

    As it stands, the iPhone is the king of video. The following review touches on that.

    However, other vendors such as Samsung, Huawei and OnePlus are rapidly catching up.

  2. Machine Learning

    The age of artificial intelligence is upon us, and the smartphone is its main carrier.

    As of now, the main players dictating steering the direction of AI in the industry are Google, Amazon, and Apple. Microsoft and Samsung have made attempts but have not been as successful.

    Samsung failure has been due to its client base reliance on Google's Android OS. Google's assistant reigns as king thusly casting a shadow on Samsung's Bixby.

    Bixby has become not only gimmick. So much so that Samsung ended up removing the Bixby button from their Note 10s lineup. Something tells me, that the decision was not simply for design purposes.

    As "Microsoft's magical" hands killed the phone business they acquired from Nokia, their somewhat impressive Cortana assistant will foreseeably remain a prisoner in the windows OS.

    As Google's Assistant reigns Supreme, Amazon's Alexa and Apple's Siri are getting better. Amazon doesn't have a smartphone flagship. Nonetheless, its dominance in home automation and its compelling Alexa usefulness has carved its space in the smartphone home.

    Apple's embattled Siri remains protected by Apple's walled garden. This way, it has been granted a chance to rebound and reassert itself. Who is to say it will not surprise us all? It's not in my place to hold my breath, but hey! It seems to have the proverbial nine lives of a cat.

  3. Chip Engineering

    Users have now moved more aspects of their lives to their smartphones. Consequently, these changes keep demanding more power. Such tasks include high bandwidth connection (e.g 4G, LTE & 5G), high refresh rate video games, high-resolution video streaming, AR gaming ...

    Users need more power to handle more CPU and GPU intensive tasks fast and seamlessly. More power per % of the battery per minute.

    This also means that new chip designs have to be more power-efficient. I presume that one way of achieving this is by designing chips that produce less heat.

    Apple Silicon A-Series chips lead this space. Qualcomm's Snapdragon, Samsung's Exynos and Hisilicon Kirin follow. Apple chips remain walled in its garden while SnapDragon is used by a number of players.

    Perhaps the successes achieved in the development of better silicon chips will bleed over into the PC / laptop industry. For sometimes, most techies cannot wait for the release of ARM-powered laptops.

  4. Display Technology

    As things are getting better, people place more attention to the finest details. Considering displays, these points of nuance, include levels of brightness, better viewing angles, color contrast, and color grading.

    Perfection in these areas is considered important to provide realistic and elegant device use in multiple environments. For instance, people crave for brighter displays when they are outdoors due to sunlight. The days when users would put up with straining to view what's on their phone have gone by.

    Today, more people embrace dark mode. They are also acutely aware of washed-out blacks and true blacks. This way, we're all appreciative of higher contrast screens.

    LCD and OLED screen technologies are now getting better by the day. LCD LED screens are brighter and support a wide range of colors. OLED provides true high contrast. As far as brightness goes, they're rapidly catching up.

    In the age of high dynamic videos, both LCD LED and OLED screen technologies are in a race to outdo each other. It goes without saying that OLED screens seem to be getting the hype as the superior of the two.

    Honestly, this hype is somewhat warranted. Nonetheless, modern LCD screens are not only cheaper, but they've put up on a good show. A perfect example of this is the display LCD display on Apple's iPhone XR and iPhone 11 phones.

  5. Industrial Design

    The smartphones of today are manufactured with beauty and functionality in mind. All top flagships lead the charge in the quest for perfection.

    Manufacturers have kicked plastic out of the window. In the past couple of years, they have added high durable glass, aluminum, and stainless steel as the main components to build their phones. In 2019, there are rumors of a shift towards titanium and ceramics bodies. The final products from these materials not only have a premium look and feel, but they also tend to be more durable.

    Smartphones also feature thinner bezels as manufacturers seek to provide edge-to-edge displays. This move provides more real estate for the user to work with. Perhaps this need has led to manufacturers exploring the need for foldable smartphones. Were they to work, they would revolutionize smartphone displays. Following Samsung's Fold failure, this change will probably have to wait for the next decade.

Now and in the foreseeable future

Going forward into 2020, the changes we see in phones will mostly incremental be incremental as opposed to abrupt massive leaps. Unless of course, the foldable phones technology hype picks momentum.

In the meantime, there are fewer things to worry about with most flagship phones:

  1. Water Damage

    You can now walk with your phone in the rain, use your phone in a swimming pool, spill water or juice on it.

  2. Say goodbye to the flash

    Goodbye to those crappy flash photos. We have night mode to for that and things will only get better

  3. To zoom or not to zoom

    Sometimes you want to take in as many details as possible up close. Thanks to ultrawide lenses, we can now shoot such with incredible ease.

    Similarly, due to improvement in optical lenses and computational (a.k.a digital) zoom technologies, we can capture objects farther away from us with better clarity.

  4. Almost saying goodbye to charging cables and power banks.

    With most flagships packing in enough battery life to last you an entire day, there's less need to constantly charge our phones.

    Unless you're going for a safari, you can safely leave your charger and power banks at home.

    If you're rocking a Pixel phone though, you may need to be more cautious.

  5. Charge wirelessly

    If you're an iPhone 8 series, Iphone X, Iphone XS series or iPhone 11 series user, you can charge your phone wirelessly. However, you and I are out of luck when it comes to bilateral charging. At least for now.

    On the other hand, if you're an android user, most of the flagship phones support bilateral wireless charging.

Dan Weru

I like to write code and scale mountains.