2013: The exciting smartphone year that never came to be

Smartphone Technology Analysis

Yes, it is depressing to witness a major vendor discussing proudly how important it is to move buttons from the side of a flagship phone to the back. It is also chilling to see that same vendor highlight how awesome it is to have a 0.1-inch bezel on the sides of a display. No, it’s not. It’s not awesome to have a 0.1-inch bezel. Debuting the first color display phones, the first camera phones and the first touchscreen phones was awesome. Back in 2001 through 2007, these major break-throughs shocked and titillated Western consumers. Now, we are running on fumes. Yet just four years ago it looked as though 2013 would be a tremendously exciting year for the industry.

Back in 2009, some industry observers expected smartphones to begin featuring built-in projectors within 3-4 years. Picoprojector phones were expected to start debuting by 2012, first in $800 ultra-luxury models and then migrating to $600 phones by the end of 2013. The competition between Texas Instruments and a tiny challenger called Microvision was supposed to fuel the growth.

Microvision’s share price spiked above $40 in late 2009 on these dreams. But MVIS is now down to $2 as a series of challenges ranging from sourcing cheap blue lasers to managing power consumption to bringing module price low enough have slowed down progress. A mass market picoprojector phone would have been a genuine break-through. Phone vendors would not need to chase bigger displays so relentlessly if smartphones could project a crisp, bright picture on a nearby wall. The new hybrid product would also revolutionize the mobile app industry, which would now be busy churning out communal games. Television viewing habits would change faster if several people could share the same show on a smartphone.

But alas, all we got was the ill-fated LG eXpo.

We still likely have to wait years for the mass market commercialization of picoprojector phones. At the same time, camera and display quality have both improved so vastly that further gains are destined to be marginal. Phones are already so thin that shaving off another millimeter won’t make much difference. Power consumption could improve a lot, but this is hardly an issue that makes consumers’ hearts beat faster.

So now, we can look forward to another year of gimmicks like wood veneers and new button placements in 2014. Perhaps even a 0.07-inch bezel.

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