The end of the smartphone era: What will be the technology battlegrounds of the next decade?

Moshe Sheier, CEVA

November 16, 2016

Moshe Sheier, CEVANovember 16, 2016

For the past decade, the smartphone race has been the main arena in which technology gladiators battled for domination. Now that Android accounts for over 87% of 2016 smartphones shipments (iOS accounts for only ~12%), we can declare the smartphone platform war is over.

So, what are the technology battle grounds of the next decade going to be? Let's take a look at some of the top arenas to which the energy (and capital investment) of the smartphone era will be diverted.

The smart home and city battle: Artificial intelligence meets ubiquitous connectivity
Virtual assistants have come a long way in the last few years, and they are now starting to support conversational capabilities. The war between Alexa, Siri, Cortana, and Google Now is in full swing, and their parent companies are investing heavily to stay on top. As I stated in a recent blog that took a more detailed look at conversational assistants, it's clear that the home is a key access point to consumers' hearts and wallets.

Now that these virtual assistants are in advanced stages of understanding natural speech, the next step will be a smooth integration with the entire smart home. I recently wrote a column about the necessity for deep linking to enable a unified user experience, thereby replacing individual apps for each device or appliance in the smart home. There are already advanced smart home features like smart doorbells that perform face recognition, climate control per peoples' behavior patterns, and smart irrigation and water management, to name but a few. To truly be a smart home, all these separate features must communicate with each other and offer a seamless user experience.

This leads directly to the war that's currently being waged on connectivity standards. LTE won the cellular battle due to its strong backing by 3GPP and cellular operators. However, in the enormously varied world of IoT -- from smart homes (with the features discussed above) to smart cities (including smart grids and connected infrastructure) -- the war is still being waged. Different use cases require different solutions, like short-range Bluetooth (with the upcoming Bluetooth Mesh) and Wi-Fi for home area networks (HANs), as opposed to low-power wide area (LPWA) for city-scaled wide area networks (WANs).


(Source: shutterstock.com)

Still, some consolidation can be expected in a field that has so many overlapping protocols and no unified standard. (You can discover more about these battles in this article about which M2M communication protocol is the best for a smart IoT).

The wearable battle: Multi-sensing enables a virtual world
LPWA leads us to the next topic -- advances in wearables, and especially "wearalones," which function as standalone devices. As users wish to be free of their smartphones in some cases, new and intriguing interfaces will develop to enable them to access all the functionality of their smartphones without lugging around a brick in their pockets. These interfaces will include always-on voice activation, eye-tracking, micro-gesture control, and more. One of the advanced examples of this trend are hearables -- devices that fit snugly into the ear and are rapidly progressing to offer surprisingly varied personal assistant functionality without cords. Many of the wearables available today include features for monitoring vital signs for health and fitness, coupled with sensor fusion capabilities for accurate measurements.

Another important part of making wearables capable of replacing devices with screens (like smartphones and tablets) is enabling a visual interface. This goes hand in hand with adding useful layers of information onto the surroundings. Until recently, virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) applications have been primarily targeted at gamers and "technology geeks." However, as evidenced in the recent Pokémon Go craze, the potential of AR/VR for the mass market is enormous and far from being tapped out. The main challenge here is how to package it. The wearable devices need to be light and untethered on the one hand, but to have very powerful processors and long battery life on the other hand. This combination poses a significant challenge for chip makers who need to find an ultra-efficient solution.

The recent inclusion of dual cameras in flagship devices opens new possibilities for augmented and mixed reality. The combination of input from two cameras (with some intelligent processing) enables depth mapping and accurate 3D modelling of the surroundings. This could open new applications for users, from games to navigation and even interacting with the physical environment.

The automotive battle: Who will win the race to self-driving cars?
The automotive industry is already in very advanced stages of testing fully autonomous vehicles. Competitors in this race vary from technology mammoths like Google, Baidu, and Uber, to traditional automotive companies like General Motors, Ford, and Daimler. The recent acquisitions of autonomous driving startups Otto and SAIPS in a pricey shopping spree by Uber and Ford clearly demonstrates the importance of this front (see this video on self-driving trucks, for example). When autonomous vehicles become the standard mode of transportation, whoever is on top will profit immensely.

In parallel with the race to self-driving cars, the highly automated vehicle, or HAV, is becoming more and more intelligent. Features like a traffic jam assist and self-parking are starting to be deployed, and high-end car owners are already enjoying the benefits of machine intelligence assisting them on the road. As opposed to the interconnected systems of the previously mentioned markets, autonomous vehicles are independent systems and face a different paradigm in terms of embedded processing power, real-time response, and -- above all -- safety.

One of the most important features in this market is intelligent machine vision. Powered by deep learning neural networks, smart sensors enable the vehicle to 'see' its surroundings. Fast and efficient sensor fusion is required to combine the various types of input (like cameras and Lidar) to create a clear picture of the road, traffic signals, other vehicles, pedestrians, and any potential obstacles. Finally, to assist in the navigation process, autonomous vehicles require much more accurate and detailed positioning and mapping.

Sharing common barriers of privacy, regulation, and safety
Although the three markets presented above are very different, they also have many similarities. Issues of privacy, regulation, safety, and standardization are still being worked out in each of them, and the results will impact when and how these technologies enter the mass market.

Also, they all require highly efficient processing power, higher levels of integration, and revolutionary, intuitive human interfaces to accommodate the desired user experience. As opposed to smartphones, which have all become practically identical, differentiation will be a determining factor in these new battlegrounds -- at least until the dust settles and the victorious solution reigns as the de facto standard. It will surely be interesting to see how all this unfolds.

Moshe Sheier is Director of Strategic Marketing at CEVA. In this role, Moshe oversees corporate development and strategic partnerships for CEVA's core target markets and future growth areas. Moshe is engaged with leading software and IP companies to bring innovative DSP-based solutions to the market. In his spare time, Moshe rides mountain bikes and practices Aikido.

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