Smartphones are getting weird again, and it could be a sign that the industry is on the brink of another huge change

  • In recent years, new smartphones from companies such as Apple and Samsung have seemed like iterative improvements rather than game-changing releases.
  • But at Mobile World Congress, brands such as Huawei and Nokia debuted new phones with unconventional features and new form factors.
  • It’s unclear if any of these new phones will prove successful, but it’s a sign that tech companies are seriously thinking about what comes after the modern smartphone.

When Steve Jobs unveiled the first iPhone more than 10 years ago, he famously showcased its ability to function as three devices in one: a phone, an iPod, and an internet communicator. But the breakthroughs that came in the years following the iPhone’s debut were almost just as impactful – the launch of the App Store in 2008, the emergence of larger-screened devices after Samsung’s first Galaxy Note in 2011, the rise of touchless voice controls with the launch of Siri in 2011 followed by the original Moto X in 2013, and the iPhone 5s’s TouchID home button that made passcodes feel obsolete in 2012.

But it’s become increasingly difficult – if not impossible – to pinpoint new smartphones that have made a similar impact. New models introduced by the industry’s biggest players, such as Apple and Samsung, have felt iterative more than revolutionary in recent years.

For example, the biggest differences between the top-of-the-line iPhone XS Max launched by Apple in September 2018 compared with 2017’s iPhone X are its bigger and sharper screen, improved water-resistance, more sophisticated processor, and enhanced camera system – improvements that are appreciated but certainly don’t fundamentally change how smartphones are used. The same can be said for Samsung’s new Galaxy S10, which offers a superior screen that the company says offers more accurate colour representation than its predecessor along with a refreshed design and a better camera.

Samsung galaxy s10 lineupYouTube/UnboxTherapyThe Samsung Galaxy S10 lineup.

But if the news announced at this year’s Mobile World Congress conference is any indication of the future, it looks like smartphones are about to change in a fundamental way. New unconventional phones launched under the Huawei, Energizer, and Nokia brands have made appearances at the convention this week, boasting features and form factors that are at least exciting and refreshing, if nothing else.

Huawei’s new foldable phone, the Mate X, features a flexible wraparound display that makes the phone resemble creased paper when folded, while Avenir Telecom’s Energizer P18K Pop packs a massive 18,000 mAh battery that gives it 50 days of battery life when in standby mode. HMD Global’s Nokia 9 PureView smartphone has a staggering five cameras on its rear. And just ahead of Mobile World Congress, Samsung unveiled its first folding smartphone, the Galaxy Fold, which can run three apps on its screen simultaneously.

Energizer Power Max P18K Pop thicc phoneShona Ghosh/Business InsiderThe Avenir Telecom Energizer P18K Pop.

The slowdown in smartphone innovation has seemingly been reflected in sales, as well. Global smartphone sales stalled in the fourth quarter of 2018, up just 0.1% compared with the same quarter in 2017, according to Gartner. A team of analysts at UBS led by David Mulholland recently estimated that smartphone units will decline by 5% in 2019, citing a change in consumer buying patterns and a lack of innovative features.

“We recognise new features always take time to gain attention in the minds of consumers, but if we look at some of the key new features in the last recent years like FaceID and artificial intelligence, they have been much slower at gaining interest in comparison with features like fingerprint sensors and dual-camera solutions,” a UBS note published on February 14 said.

Nokia 9 PureViewShona Ghosh/Business InsiderThe Nokia 9 PureView.

That’s not to say these new offbeat devices will play a role in boosting industry sales, and they may not be emblematic of the next major evolution of the smartphone. After all, the feature phones with retractable keyboards that dominated the early 2000s, such as the T-Mobile Sidekick, don’t look anything like the sleek rectangular touchscreen smartphones we use today. But the Sidekick and others set the stage for an era in which we use our phones for much more than just texting. These new foldable devices may similarly lay the foundation for whatever comes next. While what exactly that entails remains unclear, one thing is for sure – such devices are no longer just prototypes or concepts, they’re on the horizon.

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