ReadWriteReflect offers a look back at major technology trends, products and companies of the past year.
It was a big year for mobile in 2013, as it has been for the past several years.
Smartphones took the first steps toward becoming hubs we can use to control our entire lives. Companies became smarter about how they use and deploy mobile devices to make their worker more efficient. Wearable computing is still in its infancy, but 2013 brought the first inklings of a world in which computers will be part of our everyday attire. And the major mobile platforms have matured to the point where it takes some real effort to identify important feature differences between them. Ubiquitous computing is alive and well.
Let’s take a look at the top 10 trends from the mobile industry this year.
The Power Of Connecting Technologies
See also: The Top Smartphones & Tablets Of 2013
Apple, Google and Microsoft all added the newest standards for Wi-Fi Direct and Bluetooth to their mobile operating systems. And by so doing, they’ve opened the door to new types of apps, functionalities and accessory devices that will make the smartphone act as the hub of your computing world. And all because a host of gadgets will be able to talk to one another without draining your smartphone battery.
In iOS 7, for instance, Bluetooth Low Energy (also known as Bluetooth Smart) has enabled developers and hardware makers to build energy efficient accessories like smartwatches, fitness trackers and even home appliances. Apple also instituted AirDrop—the ability to share files directly with other smartphones—using Wi-Fi Direct peer-to-peer networking.
Android adopted some of the newest capabilities for Bluetooth Smart in the Jelly Bean 4.3 update in July. This so-far overlooked capability will push a whole legion of Android accessories into the market, including smartwatches like the Galaxy Gear or Qualcomm Toq and the Google Glass headset. The next wave of connected devices and accessories will be managed through these wireless standards.
Wearables On The Rise
This was also the year that a nascent new device category started to gain popularity: wearables.
The first mass market smartwatches hit the market this year—the Galaxy Gear, the Pebble and the Qualcomm Toq. Google Glass—Google’s Internet-connected goggles—has been stirring up interest all year even though only a few thousand people have had access to the units. Fitness trackers like the Nike FuelBand and FitBit were a hit among regular consumers (read: no longer just early adopters) this year.
Rumors persist that both Apple and Google, among others, are working on their own smartwatches. Both Apple and Google have filed their own patents that envision how their smartwatches could work and may have entries into the market by this time next year.
It wasn’t the year of the smartwatch, but 2013 was a good starting point for all the wearable gadgets that will come in 2014 and beyond.
Carriers Change The Plan
T-Mobile should win an award this year for changing how U.S. consumers buy smartphones. At least on the surface.
First, it did away with the two-year carrier contract. Then it allowed people to upgrade their devices twice a year. In short, T-Mobile introduced a much more European approach to the process by allowing consumers to pay for devices via monthly installments—seemingly a sharp break with the lump-sum-and two-year-contract model that had dominated smartphone sales since the release of the first iPhone in 2007.
T-Mobile describes itself as the “unCarrier.” That proved to be true for about a week, until Sprint, Verizon and AT&T immediately copied T-Mobile’s new contract and monthly installment plans. As it turns out, none of these plans really save the consumer much money, and they still tie customers to two-year contracts.
That said, smartphone buyers do have more choices of devices and upgrades and contracts that they did at the beginning of the year.
Mobile Gadgets Are Cheaper Than Ever
Apple is now the gold standard in the smartphone wars—literally so, with its introduction of the gold version of the iPhone 5S. Yet Apple has proven the exception to a general rule this year, which is that mobile devices have been getting cheaper.
The base price for an iPhone hasn’t changed all that much since 2007. A new iPhone 5S will cost you—or your carrier—a baseline $649. The iPhone 5C cost $549. Yes, U.S. consumers can get these devices for $199 or $99 respectively through carrier subsidies, but that doesn’t change the actual cost of the device. The cheapest iPad you can get is still $499 while the iPad Mini starts at $399. If you add more storage (or cellular connectivity for iPads), the prices rise fairly quickly.
But the average cost of mobile devices is starting to fall. International Data Corp (IDC) reports that the average price of smartphones this year is $337, down from $387 in 2012. By 2017, IDC predicts that the average cost of a smartphone will be down to $265.
We have seen the power of the falling prices of gadgets in world markets. Nearly a billion smartphones will be sold this year. The new high-end Nexus 5 from Google and LG costs $349. The new Moto G from Motorola costs $179. These are the best examples of quality smartphones being sold at or below IDC’s average price. Manufacturers like Samsung, ZTE, Huawei and Nokia have all pushed out cheap smartphones intended to flood the global market.
For tablets, Samsung has a variety of tablets available across a variety of price points and sizes. Google has pushed tablet pricing with the Nexus 7 at $229 while Amazon’s Kindle Fire tablets range from $169 to $379. In the future, tablet prices will also continue to drop.
Phones Of Every Shape, Size And Cost
Major manufacturers are also offering a much broader array of devices than they used to. Nokia, for instance, has taken its Lumia smartphones running Windows Phone and created both smaller, cheaper versions (the Lumia 520 at $99) and advanced devices with big screens (the Lumia 1520 with a 6-inch display) and extraordinary features (the Lumia 1020 with a 41-megapixel camera). The smartphone game is no longer just a battle of flagship phones; diverse product lineups allow manufacturers to address increasingly specific niches of the market.
In many ways, Samsung is responsible for this trend. In 2011, it released 21 different Samsung Galaxy devices—from the Galaxy Ace to the Galaxy Z. Samsung hasn’t slowed down much since; it launched 23 Galaxy phones in 2013, and currently offers four different versions of its flagship Galaxy S4.
Other smartphone competitors have taken note and have mimicked Samsung’s approach. To a certain extent, so has Apple—it released two smartphones this year with the iPhone 5C and iPhone 5S, the first time it’s broken with its original one model per year practice.
iOS 7 As A Viral Hit
Apple usually announces the newest version of iOS—the operating system that runs iPhones and iPads—at its World Wide Developer Conference in June. Apple release iOS as a beta for developers to build their apps on before the OS is officially released to the public after Apple’s new gadgets are released later in the year (for instance, iOS 7 was released to the public a week after the iPhone 5S launch this year).
In past years, most people that downloaded the iOS 7 were developers of mobile apps. That changed in a big way this year. One of the most popular stories on ReadWrite for 2013 was, “How To Download And Install The iOS 7 Beta.” Shortly thereafter, the ReadWrite top story was, “How To Downgrade The iOS 7 Beta Back To iOS 6 The Easy Way.“
The stories were intended to be a quick guides for developers, but instead attracted a huge audience looking to get a preview of iOS 7. Websites that sold access to the beta cropped up all over the Internet. Hundreds of thousands, perhaps even millions, of people were using the iOS 7 beta before Apple officially launched it for the general public.
This viral phenomenon proved to be a fairly large problem for Apple and iOS. Beta versions of operating systems are not meant for a wide audience because they can be bug and crash prone, eat inordinate amounts of battery life and make devices generally unusable. iOS 7 is the biggest jump the operating system has taken since the iPhone was released in 2007 with the new “flat” design along with 1,500 new application programming interfaces.
A conversation with testing platform uTest said that their data showed that iOS 7 had almost twice as many bugs as previous beta versions of iOS. With all of the public attention to the beta, those bugs caused a lot of problems for casual users who didn’t have the means to troubleshoot their devices.
After the end of the beta period, Apple also faced several problems with iOS 7 (such as an iMessage bug and several security issues) when it rolled out the release to the public. Again, the problems with iOS 7 were compounded by the popularity of the operating system as well as Apple’s unique strategy of making it available to every compatible device on the first day of availability. That’s a credit to Apple, but also now a source of headaches.
That experience demonstrated that iOS isn’t just a faceless operating system operating a popular device, but part of mainstream tech culture—new features, bugs and all.
Android Is All Grown Up
Google used to update Android several times a year to add features while fixing bugs and security holes. Google has since slowed its release cycle; the period between the June 2012 launch of Jelly Bean 4.1 and KitKat 4.4 October 2013 was the longest that Google had gone without releasing a new, named version of Android (Google launched two Jelly Bean updates—4.2 and 4.3—in the interim).
Google’s Android engineers believe they have achieved feature parity with other major mobile platforms (such as iOS and Windows Phone). The Jelly Bean 4.3 release saw the integration of several minor user features and a couple background developer features, like Bluetooth Smart integration. Android updates are getting smaller and further between.
As such, Google has turned its attention to other aspects of Android. In May of this year, Google didn’t announce a new version of Android but rather a suite of new tools for developers to make more money from their Android apps such as the ability to accept a variety of currencies and a translation service. Google also released its own integrated developer environment—Android Studio—at Google I/O. In October, Google released KitKat 4.4, making Android much slimmer to run on a variety of hardware profiles.
Windows Phone Claims Clear No. 3 Status
At the beginning of 2013, the company formerly known as Research In Motion changed its name to BlackBerry. It then released BlackBerry 10, the long-awaited update to its aging mobile operating system. At the time, it was a very fair question to ask if BlackBerry or Windows Phone would emerge as the clear third operating system after Android and iOS.
Anybody that picked BlackBerry was kidding themselves (me included). BlackBerry 10 fell flat and by the autumn the company was looking to sell itself to anybody that could foot the bill.
In the meantime, Windows Phone continued to rise (albeit with marginal growth compared to iOS and Android). Nokia’s push towards a wider portfolio of devices along with its ability to feature new developer tools like the Image SDK have allowed Windows Phone to claim the No. 3 tag ahead of competitors like Firefox OS, BlackBerry or any other emerging platforms.
Microsoft is committed to Windows Phone and its $7.4 billion acquisition of Nokia’s devices and services division is an example of that. For the foreseeable future, Windows Phone will be able to hold its position in the market and carve out a user base.
The Beginning Of Enterprise Mobile 2.0
If we date the smartphone revolution to July 2007 (when the iPhone was released), then we are now in Year 6 of mobile changing consumer behavior. Yet for large companies, the full effect of mobile is only beginning to be felt.
For enterprises, mobility was once synonymous with BlackBerry devices and laptops. The primary concerns at the time were to make those devices as secure as possible while also enabling workers to go just about anywhere. The same cycle is being played out, just this time with Androids and iPhones and tablets. That was essentially what Enterprise Mobile 1.0 was about: security and the bring-your-own-device movement.
Enterprises move much slower than the rest of the consumer world. They have old processes, old ways of making decisions and spending money. Instead of six week or even six month windows, enterprises work on 18 to 36 month cycles. That includes technology adoption. Last year I joked with an IBM mobile executive that enterprise mobile was in version 1.5, somewhere between adoption and optimization.
Enterprise Mobile 2.0 is about adoption, efficiency, optimization and productivity. After securing the devices and apps they use, many companies focused on one important aspect of mobility that suited their enterprise needs. Accounting, sales, marketing, CRM, compliance, employee management, IT or any variety of other departments went mobile. In 2013, we are seeing enterprises that have adopted mobile practices begin to branch out. Now, instead of just having one mobile solution (like a CRM app), enterprises are creating mobile capability for more departments as they upgrade their infrastructures.
It is not just large technology enterprises that are pushing mobile either. Large enterprises in a variety of sectors are going mobile, some of which have been slow to the party. Industries like healthcare, banking, transportation, government, automotive, telecommunications and insurance are becoming increasingly mobile. These industries are updating their horizontal capabilities with customer-centric apps as well as improving their cloud infrastructure and developer processes to align themselves for the next 10 years of mobile innovation.
The Streaming App & Connected Televisions
Early in 2013, HTC and Samsung both came out with capabilities in their flagship smartphones (the HTC One and Samsung Galaxy S4) that included infrared blasters. Those IR blasters could serve as remote controls to televisions or any other old remote device. It was the beginning of a trend that would come to some extremes in 2013.
Later in the year, Google announced the Chromecast, a dongle that plugs into a TV that allows for users to stream YouTube, Netflix or movies and music from the Google Play store. Chromecast owners can use their Android or iPhone to control the dongle as a remote control. Later in the year, popular streaming box Roku also released an app that allows users to control it with a smartphone.
Both Roku and Chromecast join a variety of features from across the industry, such as Apple TV, where users can stream what is playing on their phones/tablets to a television set or use their smartphones as remotes to control their televisions.
The Year Of The Smartphone Camera
Mobile manufacturers have had to face a difficult truth over the last couple of years: it is really difficult to market their new flagship smartphones without some type of hook or gimmick. The problem for manufacturers is that they are running out of natural extensions of mobile computing to add those eye-catching gimmicks.
Voice control was popularized in smartphones by Apple’s Siri. Gesture-based (both facial movement and touch-based) computing is interesting and still evolving, but not the selling point that it used to be. People do not care as much about speeds and feeds (the hardware inside the device) as much as they once did.
With avenues to gain consumer attention dwindling, manufacturers have taken to enhancing and marketing one of the most-used aspects of smartphones: the camera.
Every major smartphone announcement this year has featured significant new camera features. It started with BlackBerry’s editing tools that could allow you to erase movement in a picture in the BlackBerry Z10 and moved to the new sharing features and “ultrapixels” in the HTC One. Samsung’s 13-megapixel Galaxy S4 camera has so many features and modes that the smartphone’s camera took up about half of our review of the device.
The Moto X has a gesture-based “quick open” feature with enhanced optics and a 10MP camera. The iPhone also greatly upgraded its optics with a bigger aperture that captures more light and new photo modes. All in all, smartphone cameras were greatly improved this year and have become the primary battle point in the advertising and marketing wars between manufacturers.
Of all of these smartphone camera innovations, Nokia took the cake. The Finnish manufacturer released the Lumia 1020 with a 41 MP camera, enhanced optics and software to control them. A camera like the one on the Lumia 1020 has never really been featured on a top-end smartphone before (though the smartphone itself is just decent). If 2013 was the year of the smartphone camera, Nokia can claim the title of best mobile camera of the year.
Lead image courtesy of Shutterstock; Google Glass image via Google; Bluetooth image by Flickr user Dirk Haun; Samsung S4 launch, Nokia Lumia 1020 camera, Lumia 1520, Galaxy Gear and Android KitKat candy images by Dan Rowinski for ReadWrite