Although mobile innovation is nowhere as dramatic these days as it was in the first half decade of the smartphone revolution started by Apple and later joined by the Android community, innovation is still occurring.
We’ll see some of it later this week at the Mobile World Congress, an event focusing on carrier technology that has also become a showcase for Android device makers. Beyond the inevitable improvements in cameras and processing speeds, there are two practical advancements you should keep an eye out for this year.
Always-on screens so you’re never in the dark
Likely the most significant advancement will be always-on screens. Various studies show that people check their smartphones at least 100 times of day, often only to check the lock screen for the current time, note how many messages are queued, or see what’s next on their calendar. Even waking the lock screen takes power and a little effort on the user’s part.
For several years, device makers have been looking for ways to provide such data at a glance without using all that power to keep the screen display on. Some manufacturers had an always-on subscreen, often using a single color. Motorola’s Moto X has done so since 2013, though you have to wake that subscreen yourself. The product that gained the most attention with this concept was the YotaPhone, which unfortunately didn’t come to market beyond a limited release in a few minor countries.
Smartwatches can of course be used instead of the smartphone for such glances, which in some ways diminishes the need for an always-on smartphone screen. But smartwatches are not widely used, and they typically require you go with a smartphone anyhow to act in any significant way on what the glances reveal.
But this year, you can expect to see new smartphones with always-on screens. They might use a technology called OLED to light up only the pixels needed, rather than the whole screen, or they may use a different approach. (Under traditional LCD screens, even a “black” screen takes power when on.) LG has already announced that its forthcoming LG G5 will use the always-on screen technology, and you can bet most major Android device makers will adopt it as well this year. Who knows? Maybe Apple will too in its next iPhone.
If you’re worried about your smartphone staying lit in a theater or other location that should be dark, you can bet it will use the ambient light sensor to turn off the always-on screen when in a pocket or purse. Smartphones have done that for years already.
Fingerprint security goes mainstream
It’s been more than two years since Apple pioneered its Touch ID fingerprint scanner in the iPhone 5s, providing a way to quickly and securely unlock a device or send a password to a store or other service. But adoption of the fingerprint reader has been slow and halting — even at Apple, where the Notes app will be the first of its personal-information tools to get fingerprint-unlock support later this winter, in an iOS update now in beta.
Fingerprint scanners came later to Android devices, and the first versions were balky. That’s begun to change, especially at Samsung, the dominant Android provider in the United States. Its fingerprint readers now can read a fingerprint no matter how you orient that finger on the sensor, which means it’s much easier to actually use.
As a result of the broader availability of good fingerprint scanners from the two leading device makers — Apple and Samsung — we’ll see them used much more widely than for mobile payment and unlocking purposes. Expect to see a snowball adoption effect among app developers.