Android Intelligence Analysis

7 Android trends to watch in 2020

Empty predictions are a dime a dozen — but with mobile tech in particular, long-term trends can tell us a lot about what the future may hold.

Android Trends
Tumisu/Google, modified by IDG Comm

Android Intelligence Analysis

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Ah, a new year. What better time to step back, fire up our rusty ol' noggins, and think about what exciting and/or exhausting mobile-tech movements await us in the months ahead?

It's a level of contemplation that can be challenging to focus on — especially in this rowdy Android-centric domain, where Incredibly Important Information is constantly spewing forth and splashing into our moist, open eyeballs. (That's at least part of why I wear industrial strength swimming goggles whenever I'm consuming mobile tech news.) Sometimes, it's all you can do to stay afloat and avoid drowning in the fast-moving stream of "revolutionary" developments from companies you've never heard of.

Lemme tell ya, though: Stepping back and thinking about that bigger picture view can be the best way to grasp what's actually going on with these ever-evolving gadgets of ours and the software that surrounds 'em. Trends tell us so much more than any individual announcements being shouted from a filthy Vegas floor, and they definitely tell us more than the meaningless but confidently stated predictions so many folks love to bellow into the ether this time of year. (There's just one exception to that rule.)

So as most of the internet scrambles to keep up with an endless spray of CES screeching, let's zoom out and look at some of the broader trends that are bound to dominate this domain in the coming months. There will almost certainly be unexpected twists and yet-to-be-revealed surprises, but it seems safe to say we'll be spending plenty of time talking about these seven subjects.


1. Foldables, foldables, every which way

2019 was supposed to be the "year of the foldable," but in reality, it was just the tip of the folding iceberg — the year a couple of companies started dipping their eager tootsies into the water to see if they could convince anyone to join 'em for a splash.

The results? Well, they weren't exactly spectacular, but they were enough to get everyone and their mother interested in chasing the same virtual genie and trying to claim their share of the (neatly folded) pie. The technology may still be nowhere near ready for advisable ownership, but its reason for existence — the answer to the pesky question of "What problem is this solving, anyway, outside of making expensive phones seem new and exciting and worth buying?" — is getting closer to being defined.

With multiple foldable Android phones already on the horizon and even more under development, there's little question this'll be an area we'll be watching, erm, unfold as the year wears on.

2. More silly screen-related gimmicks

Like it or not, a Pandora's box has boastfully been opened when it comes to silly screen-related gimmicks — and believe you me, that's only gonna become more apparent as we weave our way through these next dozen months.

These sorts of gimmicks generally serve the same basic purpose — that is, absolutely no legitimate purpose. They address a non-problem that was created mostly just to justify their existence: the notion that we need phones with smaller bezels, damn it, because...uh, well, they look cool? (And thus also, y'know, make expensive phones seem new and exciting and worth buying. Funny how it always ultimately comes back to that, isn't it?)

And so in pursuit of that manufactured goal of having less space around our screens, we accept all sorts of laughable compromises — like having ridiculously awkward cutouts within the actual active areas we look at on our screens, having worse speakers on our phones than what we enjoyed a few years back, and having a wildly unnecessary mechanical system to tuck the front-facing camera away into a phone's body and then raise it back up every flippin' time it's needed.

Well, my dears, the silliness won't be stopping anytime soon. As 2020 progresses, we're certain to see more clumsy screen cutouts in otherwise commendable phones — phones that could have had full, uninterrupted displays if only they'd had a few extra millimeters of (gasp!) bezel — along with other practical-downgrade delights. Get ready for a fresh wave of subpar in-screen fingerprint scanners, a new series of attempts at putting a phone's camera lens beneath its frame for no apparent reason, and maybe even some attempts to extend a screen all the way onto a phone's sides (perhaps the best example yet of form at the expense of function).

In short, get ready for a bunch of stuff that looks cool but ultimately acts against your real world, 10-fingered-human interests. And speaking of which...

3. A move away from ports and buttons

With the headphone jack already on its way to extinction, phone-makers have been angling to further reduce our device's orifices and protrusions for a while now. We've seen phones without any physical buttons before, and more recently, we've seen some concept-level phones with nary a hole to be found (yipes!).

Between that general trend toward "simplifying" hardware (an insulting euphemism if I've ever heard one) and recent rumors that Apple is eyeing a port-free iPhone for 2021, it's hard not to expect some manner of movement in this direction from Android device-makers over the coming months.

Someone's bound to make a physical-interruption-free Android phone, if not this year then sometime soon thereafter. The only real question in my mind is who it'll be — and how many other yahoos will follow.

4. 5G, 5G, everywhere (except where it counts)

You knew this one was coming, right? Yup, no way around it: 5G will be everywhere in 2020, at least in terms of marketing. Carriers and device-makers have made that abundantly clear. What's less clear is how this will in any way be beneficial to the vast majority of us — and how it won't be yet another practical downgrade in our mobile-tech user experience.

To wit: 5G networks remain extraordinarily small-scale and limited in America. Even in cities where they're present, the nature of the technology means areas with actual 5G coverage are few and far between. What's more, early signs suggest that even in places where 5G is present, the experience of using it is often roughly comparable to or sometimes even worse than what you'd get from using the regular ol' 4G networks you know and loathe.

For now, at least, 5G service will also require the use of specialty (read: extra-expensive) phones that come loaded with compromises like bad battery life, unusually warm surfaces, and awkward antenna workarounds.

Yay, 2020!

5. More expensive phone options

Guess what? All of the trends we've talked about so far lead to the same end result: the presence of high-end phones that, for one reason or another, require you to fork over more dough to own 'em.

From foldables to fresh-seeming form gimmicks and, of course, that futile 5G support, carriers and device-makers are gonna have a whole new range of reasons to demand more dollars for your next mobile device. And you'd better believe they're ready to jump on that opportunity.

I mean, think about it: After years of slumping smartphone sales and extending ownership periods for existing devices, there are finally some shiny new tools to entice us all to open our wallets again. And boy, goodness, are we gonna be hearing about 'em endlessly. (It's probably no coincidence that Motorola has already said it's ready to re-enter the "premium smartphone market" with its first series of truly high-end products in a while.)

On the other hand, though...

6. More emphasis on affordable devices

Google's experience with the Pixel 3a is a reminder that sometimes, a decidedly muted and mundane model of a phone is the one people actually want to buy — especially when its compromises are limited and its price is right. (It's a lesson Motorola also learned with its Moto G line some years earlier, incidentally — when, perhaps not coincidentally, the company was owned by none other than Google.)

All eyes are once again on Google as the likely launch of its midrange Pixel 4a follow-up draws nearer — and a new series of leaks has parts of the internet already calling the phone an improvement over the higher-end Pixel 4.

Add into that recently revealed plans for a first-ever Galaxy S Lite series and Note Lite series from Samsung and rumors of a similarly branded midrange phone option from OnePlus, and it sure seems like all that high-end attention will be nicely complemented by a new emphasis on affordable midrange devices that don't completely suck.

7. Renewed attention for some Android-adjacent platforms

This time last year, Google's then-new manager of Android TV said the company was working on a significant redesign of the TV-based platform and suggested that after years of neglect, it was finally ready to give Android TV the attention it deserved.

And then — well, not much happened in 2019. Those promises are still pending.

Assuming Google hasn't done one of its classic flip-flop abandonments, this seems to suggest something is still a-cookin' — and maybe, just maybe, this'll be the year it's fully baked and ready for our tasting.

Let's not forget, too, that Google is still in the process of attempting to buy Fitbit. While that acquisition (if approved) isn't likely to result in any immediate Googley gadgets, Google also spent $40 million to buy some "top-secret smartwatch technology" from Fossil nearly a year ago —  something that was at the time described as a "new product innovation that’s not yet hit the market."

And that deal wasn't just about technology, either: It also brought a dedicated research-and-development team into Google's Wear OS department. Again, the signs sure seem to suggest that something is still a-cookin' and that Google's got some intriguing ingredients for a wearable that could be pretty different from what we've seen before.

We may not know the specifics just yet, but between all these areas and the inevitable ongoing march of Assistant alongside 'em, we've got plenty of interesting questions to ponder — and plenty of intriguing possibilities to observe.

2020, here we come. Let the games begin!

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[Android Intelligence videos at Computerworld]

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