Hands-free world of communication on the horizon? (Tech Analysis)

By Prabhu Ram,

The year gone by was an exciting year as many new flagship devices entered the market — Apple X, Samsung Galaxy S8 and Galaxy Note 8, Google Pixel 2 and 2XL, and the OnePlus 5 and 5T made some waves.

Apple iPhone X offered a radical re-design, catering to a hyper-competitive market in the throes of smartphone fatigue.

I call it smartphone fatigue because of near-uniformity among brands when it comes to shapes, sizes, designs and functions.

Smartphone brands are fighting the current market trends by differentiating themselves from others by offering customers bigger and better screens, refined camera specs and ramping up the average selling points (ASPs) for their flagships.

However, whatever be the price of a smartphone, there is not much difference in features between brands at various price points.

Even as the fight for better specifications hits a plateau, the expanding smartphone base in India offers avenues for new market entrants to test the waters.

India continues to be an exciting market for smartphones as well as one with the largest feature phone base. It provides smartphone vendors with clear targets: An attractive and lucrative replacement market, as well as an aspirational class that looks at migrating to smartphones from feature phones.

Later this year, key smartphone flagships will debut with some minor tweaks and iterations, rather than bold innovations.

The only exception to the rule could be Samsung. The electronics giant will be testing the waters with its truly foldable OLED smartphone in its “Galaxy” series with a limited run in South Korea.

It is one of the very few smartphone manufacturers hedging their bets on foldable flagships, with Apple and even Microsoft in the fray.

It will be late 2019 before these flagships start emerging in the global markets, depending on how the initial test run for Samsung goes this year.

This year will witness smartphone manufacturers embracing Artificial Intelligence (AI) significantly, with AI-powered smartphones heralding a new hype cycle.

In all likelihood, all the flagships in 2018 will come with an AI-chipset. The challenge for smartphone innovation will come from Voice AI. For instance, with increasing use of Voice AI, the smartphone will eventually become a mere enabling device, with the voice assistants controlling how we navigate the world around us.

Whether it be Siri or Google, Alexa or Bixby, the Voice AI is preparing us for a seamless experience between the real world and the technology layer. It is not surprising therefore that technology companies are training their Voice AI to embrace the lingual diversities of India.

An early sign of the future comes from Google. Twenty-eight per cent of the search queries on Google in India are by voice, with voice queries in Hindi growing at a staggering 400 per cent (year on year), according to Google India.

While smartphones enabled and democratised the access to information, technologies like Voice AI and Augmented Reality will communicate the information to us directly through voice or through display in front of our eyes. In an AI-driven world, the smartphones will lose their place as the only medium for information assimilation. We will, in all likelihood, spend lesser time looking at smartphone screens.

The smartphone, though a dominant medium, will mostly co-exist with other mediums, such as the wearable bands and the voice assistant-powered speakers in an AI-powered world. Smart glasses may make a return with new use cases by 2020.

In essence, smartphones will be around for now, but new tides of innovations will emerge elsewhere. Beginning with 2018, that will eventually lead to a new hands-free world of communication and knowledge assimilation.

(Prabhu Ram is Head, Industry Intelligence Group, at market research firm CMR, focused on advising industry participants on the dynamic telecommunications market in India and elsewhere through supply and demand side research.)


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