[International] Top 10 smartphone innovations of 2011

As smartphones become ever more ubiquitous and the speed of mobile innovation increases exponentially month by month, keeping track of the big innovations over a full year can seem a futile task. The changes, once recorded seem almost incremental when looked at through the year’s rear view mirror.

Yet, with 2012 pressing fast upon us, it is worth recording some of the more significant episodes that left their mark on the mobile market in 2011, even at the risk of them falling flat as New Year’s champagne come the morning of Jan 1st.

It also is not terribly easy to define what is and what is not a “big innovation” in mobile. Is it, for instance, a technology that is just beginning to emerge, and to wow people with its concept, or one that really found its feet this year? Does it have to be utterly revolutionary to make the cut, or simply point the way towards an interesting trend?

For the purpose of this highly subjective list, I’ve opted for a pick and mix variety; from processors to operating systems, to disruptive pricing models and increased network speeds.

It does not pretend to be comprehensive, nor does it aim to be definitive, and comments regarding your own selections are –as ever-- most welcome.

Thus, without further ado, I’ll begin this list with the smallest of components which arguably has the biggest effect on every generation of smartphones, the mobile application processor.

(1) Processors

 Early 2011 saw the introduction of the world’s first dual-core phones and Tablets, with Google Inc.’s Android leading the charge, as Nvidia Corp.’s Tegra 2 battled it out with Samsung Electronic’s Hummingbird SoC, while Qualcomm Inc.’s Snapdragon and Texas Instrument Inc.’s Omap 4 soon closed the gap.

 Indeed, according to Strategy Analytics, multi-core smartphone processors accounted for almost 25 percent of all smartphone processors shipped in Q3 2011.

 Each manufacturer managed to put its own differentiating spin on its chip-ware, with some like TI and Samsung sticking closely to the ARM reference design while building up feature functionality around the chip, while Qualcomm significantly customized its chip architecture while integrating its own specialty features like baseband connectivity, and Nvidia focused heavily on its GPU.

Nvidia’s Tegra 2 sported two ARM Cortex-A9 cores clocked at 1GHz, coming complete with an ARMv7 instruction set, made on a 40-nm process technology.

 TI’s Omap 4 also uses dual Cortex-A9s, as well as two other ARM Cortex-M3s work to offload all real-time control processing, freeing up the main CPU.  The platform was recently singled out by Google as the flagship chip to run its Ice Cream Sandwich (Android 4.0) operating system and believe it can hold its own even as rivals Nvidia and Qualcomm look towards quad core processing.

 Indeed, Nvidia’s Tegra 3 quad-core chipset has already made its debut in the Asus Eee Pad Transformer Prime tablet/laptop hybrid and may find its way into smartphones over the coming months, as will Qualcomm’s quad core Snapdragon offerings.

 Qualcomm, the first supplier to support Google’s Android OS, already boasts over 30 OEM partners which have collectively launched over 225 Android devices based on Qualcomm’s Snapdragon chipsets, which range from single core chips aimed at the lower end, to dual core chips for today’s high end and tomorrow’s mid-range, while quad core is set to become the high-end of 2012’s offerings.

 What has become abundantly clear in 2011, however, is that whether one actually needs more cores in a smartphone is no longer a particularly relevant question. As ARM continues to design ever-lower powered chips, which partners are able to squeeze ever more performance from, consumers have made it clear that faster takes precedence over all. Let’s just hope this need for speed doesn’t come to a grinding halt any time soon.

(2) 4G

 The need for speed is not restricted to the mobile processor, however, with a fast smartphone being only as useful as the speed of the network it’s running on. After all, lag is lag, whether that lag occurs as a result of a phone freeze-up or a network outage.

 Thus, 4G has been all the rage in 2011, with mobile marketeers world over attempting to cash in on the hype by arbitrarily dubbing any increase in network speed “next generation 4G”, whether it be HSPA+ or otherwise.
 The emergence of real 4G LTE, however, does have the ability to fundamentally change the way devices are used, as the increased bandwidth can make on-line and cloud services really perform for users.

4G is also seen as something of a savior for carriers too, as operators world-over struggle with ever growing masses of data traffic, clogging the 3G pipelines and resulting in poor customer experiences.

 Of course, with the emergence of metered billing, it may be difficult for users to get all the benefits of the new, faster, unclogged 4G, since they will have to pay a lot to get all the content and service really available.

 “Bringing out LTE devices that are in line with the current pricing is challenging,” said mobile analyst Chetan Sharma, noting that faux-4G, like T-Mobile's HSPA+, can move things forward for operators who are not jumping onto LTE yet.

 Also, as Wi-Fi offloading becomes another viable option and pooled data plans become increasingly likely in the near future, the true promise of 4G may just be beginning to surface.

(3) Android Ice Cream Sandwich, iOS5… and WP7 Mango

 While speeds and feeds are certainly attention grabbing, it is the user interface that can really make or break a smartphone’s success and 2011 saw some major advancements on the mobile operating system front.

 The year started off with buzz over Google’s Android 3.0 Honeycomb operating system, the firm’s first iteration optimized specifically for a tablet form factor.

 Pundits posited that the OS’ sleek new look, futuristic UI, support for hardware accelerated graphics and improved browsing - including bookmark syncing with desktop Chrome – would finally turn Android into a true competitor to Apple’s ever-popular iPad.

 Alas, that hope never quite materialized over the course of the year, but it was clear that with Honeycomb, Google was taking strides in the right software direction.

 Meanwhile, rival Apple was not standing still, working on its own operating system upgrade with iOS5. The update, said to be the most significant iOS platform upgrade to date, included an Android like notification bar, the ability to access the phone’s camera from the lock screen, iMessage instant messaging and the iCloud, which allowed users to sync their iTunes purchases between their iPhone, iPod and iPads, as well as on their desktops. This allowed any apps or music downloaded to any iDevice to be automatically backed up over Wi-Fi, something iPhone users had long been calling for.

The 2011 summer of mobile was also significant for adding another surprise player to the previously two horse OS race.  While Microsoft’s original version of Windows Phone 7 (WP7) had failed to stir up much excitement, its Mango update in late August boasted a number of improvements to overall user experience to grab consumer attention.

 Mango, or Windows Phone 7.5 included a new “email conversation view” which amalgamated text messages, Windows Live chats and Facebook chat into one area on the phone. There was also hardware acceleration for HTML5, making browsing on Internet Explorer 9 much faster and smoother.

Apps too have been given a boost on Mango, with Twitter and LinkedIn integration, along with new support for Facebook Places check-ins and photo tagging. Old favorites like the much lauded Zune Media Player and Xbox Live were also still featured. Arguably the best improvement, however, was that Mango finally brought Silverlight 4 compatibility to the OS, as well as support for private applications.

 No sooner had Microsoft joined the fray in a significant way, however, Google made its next move, announcing Android 4.0, Ice Cream Sandwich. The OS, customized specifically for TI’s Omap 4 chipset.

 The first Google OS designed to run on both tablets and handsets, Ice Cream Sandwich sported a number of enhancements, mainly at the applications and user interface level. These included yet more improvements to the phone’s browser, support for Google+ social network, enhanced mail and calendar programs and Face Unlock, a face-recognition feature used for unlocking a handset.

The OS was launched on Google’s new flagship smartphone, the Samsung Galaxy Nexus, with customer reviews thus far indicating a positive reception.

 “It’s a great new UI, but it does feel slightly slower,” said mobile power user and pundit Harel Shattenstein, founder of AppsMarketing. “iOS5 on the iPhone 4 is faster, but Google has added great features and UI tweaks,” he said.

 Chetan Sharma added that the rapid fire Android OS upgrades were happening so quickly that the entire industry was being kept on its toes, “OEMs and rivals alike.” He did caution, however, that the blistering pace could be confusing to customers.

(4) Siri

 No discussion around mobile software would be complete without mention of Apple’s coup de grace this year, bringing voice interaction to the mainstream with its Siri personal mobile assistant.

 Siri, which understands a user’s natural speech and uses voice commands to send messages, schedule meetings, place phone calls, and answer queries was a true departure from earlier voice recognition software, in that it did not require the user to remember specific keywords or commands.

 Not only does the mobile butler service understand natural speech, but it can also respond with questions if it needs more information to complete a task.
The software uses the processing power of the 4S’ dual-core A5 chip, as well as 3G or Wi-Fi networks to ping back to Apple’s data centers, understand the user query and then quickly return a response.

 The buzz and excitement around Apple’s Siri also served to largely sweeten the pill of bitter disappointment around the lack of an iPhone 5 this autumn.

 Siri originally started out as an iOS application available in the App Store by third party developers. The startup itself was founded in 2007, and the SIRI team managed to raise fairly significant amounts of venture funding in 200 and 2009, before being acquired by Apple on April 28, 2010.

 The firm had originally planned to release Siri as an app for all smartphones on the market, but the Apple acquisition soon nixed that, locking the virtual PA in to work only with the iPhone 4S.

 Despite the service’s seeming innovation, however, a recently unearthed YouTube video appears to show Apple mulling the idea of a computerized butler service all the way back in 1988.

(5) HTML5 and the death of Adobe Flash for mobile

 No matter how visionary Steve Jobs may have been regarding a pre-Siri service back in 1988, his real foresight is unarguably his stance on the unsuitability of Adobe Flash for mobile and his predictions of the platform’s demise, a prophecy which came true just a month after his death.

 In a shocking 180-degree twist, Adobe announced in a November blog post that it would no longer be working to adapt Flash Player for mobile to new browsers, OS versions or different device configurations, and that it would instead focus on building applications for mobile and investment in HTML5 - long considered a rival standard.

 “HTML5 is now universally supported on major mobile devices, in some cases exclusively,” wrote Danny Winokur, vice president and GM of Adobe’s interactive development team, adding that this now made HTML5 superior in terms of creating and deploying content in the browser across mobile platforms.

While some saw Adobe’s announcement as surrender and an acknowledgment of defeat, others saw the move as a simple repackaging and rebranding exercise, with the firm shifting its app development focus to Adobe Air (Adobe Integrated Runtime).

 With Google, Apple, Microsoft and the rest of the industry lining up behind the HTML5 platform, however, it certainly seems like the industry has made its clear-cut choice for the near future.

(6) Near Field Communication (NFC) and the launch of Google Wallet

 As smartphones become ever more powerful, they also become that much more essential to our lives, with some studies even claiming that it takes a person longer to report a missing credit card than it would for them to report a lost or stolen mobile device.

 The personal nature of the smartphone, as well as the fact one is loath to leave the house without one, is generating plenty of buzz around the concept of the mobile wallet. Just as credit cards sped up the change from cash to plastic, it’s believed that Near Field Communication (NFC) technology could significantly shift human payment behavior and bring money onto the mobile phone in a serious way.

 NFC is a set of short-range wireless technologies, typically requiring a distance of 4 centimeters or less – hence the word “near” in its name. It operates at 13.56 MHz and at rates ranging from 106 kilobits per second to 848 kbps – always involving an initiator and a target.

 The initiator actively generates an RF field that can power a passive target, like a tag, sticker, key fobs, or card which doesn’t require a battery. NFC can also, of course, be integrated into mobile devices, either at the SIM or software level, allowing users to connect their phones to their credit cards or online cash source and pay digitally with just a tap. 

 A report by Juniper research in mid-2011 predicted that one in five smartphones would sport NFC by 2014, and that NFC services are set to proliferate rapidly over the next three years. Forrester Research said in a June report that it expects mobile commerce to become a $31 billion business by 2016.

Mobile operators, too, have a vested interest in the technology, because by integrating NFC onto the SIM rather than into the phone software, carriers can position themselves to take a slice of every transaction made through NFC payment. U.S. carriers Verizon, AT&T and T-Mobile even uncharacteristically joined forces this year to create a digital wallet initiative of their own, Isis, set to debut in 2012.

 NFC technology is not exactly new. In fact, it was developed several years back, but has taken time to break into the mainstream and achieve commercial deployment, owing to the complexities of joining the regulatory world of banking with the world of mobile operators and service providers. 

 Over the past year, however, there have been several key developments and announcements which have served to bolster faith in the NFC market, and the technology has found its way into many high profile smartphones, including the Google Nexus series, Blackberrys, and all the new Nokia smartphone offerings.
 NFC is also finding its way into other industries like the healthcare, automotive and security sectors.

 Over-the-top service providers like Google and PayPal have been quick to try and cash in on the burgeoning mobile payments trend, with Google wallet launched back in September and PayPal showing off its peer-to-peer payment system which works by simply tapping mobile phones together.

(7) DLNA and WiFi Direct in smartphones

 In November, the Digital Living Network Alliance (DLNA) announced the inclusion of the Wi-Fi certified Wi-Fi Direct platform into its interoperability guidelines, giving users the promise of easy-to-use wireless media streaming without the need to go through a router, simply by connecting directly to each other.

 Previously, streaming between devices was a rather cumbersome experience, with involving either cables, or reduced bandwidth speeds owing to distances between the router and the DLNA device.

 It’s also extremely helpful that only one of the devices needs to be WiFi Direct certified, thus, a user does not need to upgrade their TV or computer in order to stream content to it via a WiFi Direct smartphone.

It may not be able to handle super-high definition Blu-Ray quality video, but it’s a good start, and a welcome advancement in an industry that for too long has called itself “wireless” while insisting on cables for media sharing.

(8) Mirasol screen technology

 Short battery life is the biggest unsolved complaint in mobile, and with battery makers seemingly unable to tackle the issue themselves, other companies, from chip to device makers, have had to find ways to prolong device life using other factors.

 Qualcomm has been especially active in terms of battery life workarounds, having spent $400 million in FY11 - with plans to spend about $600 million more in FY12 - on QMT technologies, which manufactures the ultra-low power consuming Mirasol displays.

 Qualcomm has described the technology used in Mirasol displays as being similar to the color-producing process that makes a butterfly’s wings shimmer through light reflection, using ambient light to conserve power.

 At its most basic level, Mirasol is an optically resonant cavity, consisting of a self-supporting deformable reflective membrane and a thin-film stack - each layer of which acts as a mirror – both sitting on a transparent substrate. There is a gap between the two filled with air.

The core building block of mirasol displays, the Interferometric Modulator (IMOD) element, is a simple MEMS (micro-electro-mechanical system) device that is composed of two conductive plates.

 The IMOD element has two stable states. When no voltage is applied, the plates are separated, and light hitting the substrate is reflected. When a small voltage is applied, the plates are pulled together by electrostatic attraction and the light is absorbed, turning the element black.

 When ambient light hits the structure, it is reflected both off the top of the thin-film stack and off the reflective membrane. The human eye then perceives different wavelengths of reflected light as different colors.

 A full-color display is assembled by spatially ordering IMOD elements reflecting in the red, green and blue wavelengths.

 Since visible light wavelengths operate on the nanometer scale (i.e., 380nm to 780nm), the deformable IMOD membrane only has to move a short distance—a few hundred nanometers—in order to switch between two colors. This switching happens extremely fast, on the order of tens of microseconds, which means the screen can also show video playback at up to 30 frames per second.

 It also allows for better viewing quality in bright sunlight than most other screens, and greatly reduces battery consumption, because the bistable nature of the screen allows for near-zero power usage in situations where the display image is unchanged.

 The Kyobo e-Reader, launched back in November, was one of the first devices on the market to sport a Mirasol display. The device boasts a 5.7-inch 1024 x 768 screen with an impressive 223 pixels per inch.

 As well as using Qualcomm’s Mirasol technology for its screen, the device also runs off a 1.0 GHz Snapdragon S2 class processor and runs Android 2.3. 

(9) Nokia’s long-awaited comeback and Amazon’s mobile debut

 While not much of an innovation in and of itself, the return of Nokia to relevance in mobile did make its mark on the mobile industry in 2011, with the firm’s Microsoft partnership just starting to bear fruit.

 The Finnish phone company recently announced its first Windows Phone device, the Nokia Lumia 800, universally acclaimed for its good looks and garnering good feedback from consumers on its WP7 operating system.

 The device boasted a 3.7-inch AMOLED display, 1.4 GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon processor, 8 megapixel Carl Zeiss camera and 16GB of embedded memory, as well as a whole host of custom Nokia apps, and the best use of integrated NFC in a consumer device thus far.

“This is a slim and sleek, well designed phone, featuring a best in class camera and it has some strong key selling points,” said IDC’s Francisco Jeronimo of the Lumia 800, though he admitted the phone may have trouble competing in a market where Android and iOS still dominate.

 “The Microsoft/Nokia partnerships was the best deal for both parties,” said AppMarketing’s Schattenstein, adding that Windows Phone 7.5 was “a great OS” but was not completely matured yet.

 “It is a good OS, but is it too late to the party?” asked Chetan Sharma, while fellow analyst Jack Gold wondered how successful the partnership would be in the long term.

 Meanwhile, retail giant Amazon exploded onto the mobile scene in November with the launch of its long anticipated Kindle Fire tablet, which has already become the number one best-selling, most gifted, and most wished for product across the millions of items available on Amazon.com since its introduction 13 weeks ago.

 Amazon also successfully launched its own app store, an alternative to Google’s Android Market, offering users heavily discounted apps and games, alongside its own videos, MP3s and Kindle E-books.

 Amazon’s moves in mobile are thought by many to have kick-started a truly disruptive force in terms of device pricing, successfully demonstrating how ad integration can be used to subsidize phones and tablets which can then be offered to customers relatively cheaply.

 The Kindle Fire may not be a top of the range device, and it certainly doesn’t boast any big technological innovations, but coming in at a sub $200 price point, Amazon has thrown down the gauntlet to competitors and shown that “good enough” technology can come cheap, or “cheap enough” for the masses.

 Of course for every success or successful comeback in mobile, there is always a flip side of failure, and 2011 has seen its fair share of flops too. The continued fall from grace of Canadian company RIM and its BlackBerry smartphones continues into 2012 (mainly due to a lack of innovation), while the death of HP’s aspirations in the smartphone space have left WebOS an orphan to the world of open source.

(10) Best of the rest

 This may be considered slightly cheating in a “Top 10” list, but with so many innovations and key changes in the world of smartphones in 2011, it’s worth finishing the list with a secondary list of innovations to keep an eye on.

 For instance, Lytro, the radical new portable camera design which analysts believe will either get snapped up by an OEM like Apple or license out its technology to a plethora of smartphone makers.

Lytro is the first consumer light-field camera. Unlike conventional cameras which capture a single plane of light, the Lytro camera can capture the entire light field, which is all the light traveling in every direction in every point in space.

That means one can focus and re-focus, anywhere in the picture, after having already taken it. This also eliminates the need for an auto-focus, which allows users to take photos instantaneously, without any delay.

The technology is still relatively expensive, and standalone, but it may well make the cut in next year’s top 10 mobile innovation list.

Biometrics for authentication, like TI’s Face-Unlock for smartphones, is also an innovation worthy of mention but not its own place in the top 10. After all, the technology has been around for quite some time in markets like Japan, and is only just beginning to rise to prominence in Europe and the U.S., like NFC.

Paradoxically, the rise of NFC and the mobile wallet is acting as something of an accelerator for smartphone biometrics, as concern over privacy and security of one’s mobile cash stash increases.

Smartphones as remote controls have long been more of a promise than a practice, but with technologies like Wi-Fi direct becoming more prominent, and with consumers demanding more inter-connectivity between their TVs, smartphones, game consoles, home automation systems and wellness devices, smartphones as remote controls is a concept finally beginning to take flight.

The implementation of a better "fast dormancy" standard in smartphones is helping not only to increase device battery life, but also to manage signaling traffic overload. The pressure from consumers for devices to be “always on” has prompted the industry to develop an approach by which phones can rapidly connect and then disconnect from a network in order to save battery life. This incessant connection and disconnection, however, has put significant strain on mobile networks in terms of signaling traffic, degrading network performance.

 In 2011, network operators like Nokia Siemens Networks have worked closely with partners like Qualcomm in order to improve fast dormancy standards, and work to allow networks and smartphones to “talk” to each other, for more optimal usage.

 For the system to truly work, both smartphones and operator networks need to implement the improved standards, but with battery life becoming increasingly important, the feature is becoming a priority.

 In fairness, however, Nokia had implemented Quick Release a.k.a fast dormancy quite a while before Qualcomm started working with NSN.

 Nokia quick release works with or without network control and remains a key differentiated benefit for what is now the Renesas Mobile Modem that is the worlds most widely deployed modem from the ex-Nokia WiMo team.

 Finally, the tighter integration of location with all smartphone interactions has also made the headlines prolifically in 2011, for better and for worse.

 Though not difficult to achieve technically, the true potential for location integration is only just being realized, in terms of commerce, apps, retail and more.

 If 2012 manages to be slightly less litigious than 2011 - which saw an abundance of patent wars and IP litigation - we can hope to see many more game changing technologies emerge over the coming months. In the meanwhile, we wish you a very merry mobile new year, with all the innovations you could dream of.

Source: EETimes