by Scott Webster | shared from reviews.cnet.com
2013 was a busy year for the Android ecosystem: phones got bigger, faster, and more robust. Tablets grew numerous, and Android moved into electronics like smart watches and a gaming device. Looking ahead to next year we should expect the same trends to continue, but on a slightly different trajectory. Android will likely have a decent showing at the Consumer Electronics Show with announcements from a handful of hardware makers. Jumping ahead to February and Mobile World Congress (MWC), things should start to heat up for the next generation of Android. While this may sound like business as usual, 2014 will undoubtedly bring a crop of smartphones unlike any before. Let’s examine some of the trends we can expect in the Android ecosystem over the next 12 months.
One thing I definitely did not see coming in 2013 was the introduction of the Google Play Edition devices. As of today, we have flagship devices from LG, Sony, Samsung, and HTC, each running the stock version of Android. Perhaps more importantly, these models are being updated quickly with the latest and greatest Android releases. The fanboy cries were heard this year and now top-tier devices can be bought without carrier influence. The Nexus line of devices is just as strong today as it has ever been, and Google has something good going with the Play Store experience. It’s the perfect way to channel customers, introduce new products, and keep them in their own ecosystem. We’ll definitely get a new Nexus smartphone and tablet(s) this year but I fully expect to see more Google Play Edition products introduced. With a new generation of flagship devices set to be introduced in the first few months of the year, it makes sense that the stock Android models will arrive in the Play Store.
This is not to suggest that 2014 will be the end of custom UI’s, branded apps, or features. On the contrary, we’ll get more of this in 2014 as companies elbow each other for position. Samsung will keep pushing its apps and services agenda while HTC marches on with things like BlinkFeed, Zoe, and UltraPixel cameras. I see a focus on quality over quantity this year; customization won’t be quite as obvious out of the box. It hasn’t hurt that Google has pulled out parts of the general Android experience and made them available as standalone apps in the Google Play Store. If anything, this lets Google roll out updates in a much quicker fashion. We no longer have to wait for a new Android release to get the latest Gmail and YouTube features. Motorola did the same with some of its Droid and Moto X apps this year and I expect we’ll get more of that from other companies. Android is a much lighter experience today and doesn’t require months of tweaking and testing to get with the times. I suspect that Motorola will have an easier time updating its Moto G and Moto X with new apps and Android releases than other handset makers. Don’t be surprised, though, if HTC does something similar with its Sense experience in 2014.
Google I/O and major releases
If 2013 taught us anything about big electronics shows, it’s that smartphone manufacturers don’t want to be lost in the noise. Samsung, LG, Motorola, and HTC all opted to introduce products at their own pace in 2013. This isn’t to say CES and MWC will be devoid of announcements, but it won’t be as cluttered with Android as in years past — although Samsung could introduce the Galaxy S5 in Barcelona this year. As companies streamline their offerings we should expect one-off press events scattered over the year.
Google I/O in 2013 ended up being less about Android this time than in previous years as Google fixed its gaze on other properties. Seeing as how Android’s releases have been smaller, incremental updates, I don’t see a huge focus on Android in early 2014. The last few Android builds came as press releases, intimate events, and social media updates. This will continue until we get that big, 5.0 release that ushers in a new experience. Since we didn’t get much in 2013, I hope Android has a big I/O reveal this year.
One (large) form factor for all
It pleases me to see how many of today’s flagship devices are offered across multiple carriers. For the most part, exclusives are becoming a thing of the past, and handset manufacturers are consolidating product lines. Yes, we’ll get more of the Droid line at Verizon and those one-off models at prepaid carriers. Generally speaking, however, we should see more of a universal approach. I’ve long waited for the day when we can pick the phone we want and then choose the carrier. Thanks to a growing portfolio of Android devices like the Samsung Galaxy S4, HTC One, LG G2, and Moto X, we’re getting closer to this reality. Just for the sake of bragging, I’d like to remind readers that I correctly predicted that both HTC and LG would adopt this strategy in 2013. Expect these new phones to be larger, too. Some of the most popular smartphones of 2013 range from 4.7 inches to 5.2 inches, with plus-size phones between 5.7 and 6.3 inches. I see no signs of this trend slowing down in the next 12 months.
Features, fads, and gimmicks
While I expected NFC to gain traction in smartphones, it didn’t quite end up as a standard in 2013. We never did see the big mobile payment war unfold between Google Wallet, Isis, and others. Heck, even Google changed direction with its Wallet initiative and now relies less on NFC connectivity. We will continue to see accessories integrate NFC connections for pairing, but it’s still not enough to force it into every smartphone. Dare I say it, but it might take Apple’s adoption to make NFC mainstream. Battery life is as important today as it was with the first generation of Android devices. The problem with having massive screens and blazing fast CPUs is that it’s easy to drain the juice from your beloved smartphone. Fortunately, handset makers are making strides in this area and it’s not uncommon to see a 2,500mAh battery or higher in devices. Larger smartphones such as the Samsung Galaxy Note 3 and HTC One Max are able to tuck bigger batteries behind the display. We’re also seeing more companies opt for the non-removable battery. This trend will continue in 2014, perhaps at an accelerated rate. Come this time next year we may have 4,000mAh batteries in select models.
I was wrong in guessing that we’d have more players in the connected camera space in 2013. As it turned out, we didn’t end up with more players and the price didn’t come down. If anything, it went up. Samsung’s Galaxy Camera NX commands a $1,600 price tag, but it’s in a league of its own. Do I see anyone else getting involved in 2014? My Magic 8-Ball says, “Very doubtful.” Gamers saw Android in a new light this year thanks to devices like the Nvidia Shield, Ouya, and Moga controllers. All three will evolve in 2014, and mobile gaming will improve across the board. It’s going to get harder to convince the younger generation that consoles are worth the investment. Why spend $50 on a game that keeps you tied to the living room when a $5 title can go with you anywhere? Alas, we still don’t have Android-powered appliances and cars don’t have Android in the dashboard. It’s unlikely this will happen in the coming year but I’d love to be wrong. We also didn’t see any new Nexus Q-like products this year, but we did get something much better.Google’s Chromecast, which works very well with Android apps, does everything the bowling ball did but at a fraction of the cost. As it stands today there are more than a dozen apps that offer the second screen or mirroring experience. Suffice to say, Google will work to ensure even more adoption happens in the coming year. Maybe some day we’ll have an NBC app that lets me watch “Elementary” and “Survivor” this way. Google Glass has really gained traction over the last few months and we’re inching closer to that general public release. Apps are becoming more compelling and the hardware looks to be improving over time. It won’t completely take off in 2014 but it will change the way people look at technology. Also, we shouldn’t be surprised when other hardware makers introduce their own glasses and concept devices. Google will need to bring the price down quite a bit, but it could lead to fierce competition.
Better products for less
The best part of technology that moves as quickly as smartphones is that yesterday’s best is tomorrow’s average. Specifically, the stuff you paid extra for in 2012 is now just about standard. Take a look at your major carrier’s smartphone portfolio and you’ll likely find a few respectable models at $50, or even free with a contract. The bottom has dropped on pricing much faster than I expected, but I don’t think we’re done just yet. The next year will see even more models offered for below $100 prices as companies jockey for position. Don’t be surprised to find your favorite handset maker introducing an entry-level model to complement a premium, flagship experience. As such, these will likely be more powerful than your last smartphone but at a fraction of the cost.
I am completely fascinated by Motorola’s strategy with the midrange Moto G and will be watching their movements closely. The idea that you can get a 4.7-inch, quad-core experience for $180 off contract boggles the mind. Make no mistake, Motorola has thrown down the proverbial gauntlet. Here’s to hoping it becomes wildly successful and causes other hardware makers to react quickly. Sure, the Nexus line is some of the best you can get for the money; but, it’s now more expensive than other options. What’s more, it’s tough to show the typical consumer where the differences are, especially when both run identical software. Consumers are becoming increasingly more educated and have a better understanding of the mobile space. As wireless carriers delve deeper into prepaid and no-contract plans, buyers will not want to spend $500 to $700 for a new phone. I see record numbers of customers opting for plans without contracts in 2014. And, when people are forced to choose with their wallet, many will be just fine with the performance of a “typical” Android. Don’t get me wrong: carriers will still introduce phones that run $250 with a two-year plan. Fewer this year than ever before, but it’s going to happen.