Smartphone's evolution continues with a raft of new innovations

Mobile phones are getting smarter with gesture control and new operating systems that could soon render the iPhone obsolete, writes Jamie Carter

PUBLISHED : Friday, 15 March, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 15 March, 2013, 10:05am

Will we one day look back on the iPhone and think it quaint? Probably, and that day could come sooner than you think, with developers ready to unleash a raft of innovations.

Smartphones in new shapes and sizes were unveiled at last month's Mobile World Congress in Barcelona. But there were also suggestions that we've moved into an era where the way a device works is more important than how slim or stylish it looks.

Several new operating systems (OS) for smartphones have emerged - including Firefox, Ubuntu, Sailfish and BlackBerry 10 - that try to go beyond both Apple's iOS and Google's Android. Which one triumphs remains to be seen.

"All of these vendors will be keen to sell the benefits of their approaches and offer operators an alternative to the increasingly dominant duopoly of Android and iOS," says Nick Dillon, who follows devices and platforms at global analyst firm Ovum, which has offices in Hong Kong, Beijing and Shanghai. "The 'third ecosystem' is still up for grabs with these new entrants going head-to-head with Microsoft's Windows Phone."

Windows Phone was touted as the next big thing, but it's one part of the Windows 8 operating system that has confused and irritated many of Microsoft's core users. The handsets being made for the meant-for-mobile system are doing rather well, but that's thanks to some luscious designs from the likes of Nokia and Huawei. Inside is an OS that doesn't work well on a PC, let alone a tablet, and suffers from a lack of apps.

Appealing to app developers is a hurdle that will need to be climbed by any new OS for smartphones, but that doesn't mean it's impossible. Ubuntu, for long an alternative desktop OS to Mac and Windows, has been unveiled this year as both a smartphone and tablet interface, although the first wave of devices aren't expected until much later this year.

The biggest barrier has been the poor battery life on mobile devices. How many of us can get more than 24 hours from our smartphone?

Trying it out on a Samsung handset recently proved deliciously different to an iPhone or Android smartphone. The interface, called Unity, uses no buttons whatsoever. The tap-less OS - which uses gestures and the edges of the touchscreen to awaken apps and functions - rids a smartphone of needless clutter. On that brief, Ubuntu delivers, although in some ways it's a blend of existing operating systems.

The traditional app icons familiar to iPhone or Android users stay, so pressing the Facebook or Gmail logo launches that app, but there's an element of Windows Phone, too; swipe left, right, up or down from the home screen and other commonly used services reveal themselves.

In what's best described as a 360-degree design, we swipe to the left to see contacts and a chronological history of conversations, text messages and other communications, and further left to access music, where albums and songs are represented by cover art and titles. Scroll right and we come to video, where once again all media content is organised by thumbnail images, and further on to running apps, with a "frequently used" area accessed by dragging a finger downwards. In Ubuntu, the finger doesn't often leave the screen, drawing small "L" and "S" shapes on the glass for quick navigation.

Gestures are used to access occasional functions. For instance, changing the Wi-fi network or setting an alarm don't need to be done on the home screen; on Ubuntu, a touch of the top of the screen brings down a carousel, which is navigated by dragging a finger first across, then down to select a function. Similarly, photos are presented as a gorgeous, text-less timeline-style gallery, with editing and sharing options only offered if you delve into an individual photo and touch the bottom of the screen.

"A positive for such a phone is that, just like the desktop version, Ubuntu on phones will be constantly upgraded," says Kevin Curran, senior member of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE). "For many Android smartphone owners, this is the stuff dreams are made of."

Whether Ubuntu can reverse the dominance of Android or iOS is hard to predict, but it does have a leg-up in that it's not totally new; developers know it already as a desktop OS (used by 20 million people) that runs the familiar free and open-source Linux architecture.

"What is interesting about the arrival of Ubuntu is the abundance of existing Linux apps that are already available," Curran says. "Ubuntu is working to make it easier for developers to port these across so they work seamlessly on smaller screens - and this may make it easier for Linux developers to become mobile app developers."

The Mobile World Congress also witnessed the emergence of Firefox as a smartphone OS. Sony, ZTE, LG and Huawei have expressed an interest in it, though it appears that Samsung will produce a smartphone this summer based on yet another platform, called Tizen.

This backs up the claim that we're now in a "post-hardware" world, but that's jumping the gun. Huawei and Samsung are now producing popular so-called phablet handsets with six-inch screens that double as a smartphone and a mobile desktop. Meanwhile, advances in smartphone materials will see flexible, bendable handsets appear soon; destined to be much lighter and allow a swathe of new designs - including wrist-watch styles - and an end to the smashed screen. There's also a double-sided phone prototype called Yotaphone that has a regular LCD screen with an electronic paper display on the other side.

Calling it a "mini revolution", Curran thinks this battery-saving idea is destined to spread to all mobile devices. "The biggest barrier has been the poor battery life on mobile devices," he says. "How many of us can get more than 24 hours from our smartphone?"

There are continuing rumours of both a Facebook phone and a Nintendo gaming-centric phone, too, but the real race is to produce cheaper smartphones. Bemoaning the "quaint Western bias" in talk about expensive Apple and Android handsets and tablets, Victor Basta at Silicon Valley-based analyst firm Magister Advisors thinks the market is now all about China, India and other developing economies. "Market leaders in the developed world don't have the technologies or the price points to succeed and will have to innovate rapidly to do so," he says. "China and India alone have a population 2½ times the combined population of the US and Europe."

It didn't get much attention, but it could be the launch of the basic HK$150 Nokia 105 smartphone at the Mobile World Congress that is this year's best business decision. It's about building brand loyalty, says Curran, "for a future where the mobile becomes the de facto computing device for each person on the planet."

One thing's sure: that device is not going to be an iPhone.