Seven exciting trends to watch in 2012

7 trends to watch for in 2012
2011 is officially in the bag, and our reminiscing is firmly behind us. Now it’s time take a look at what the coming year holds in store for us. Of course many (many!) products will be announced next week at CES, but instead of worrying about individual announcements, let’s take a moment to look at the coming technologies and trends that should define 2012.

1) LTE starts to grow up

In 2011, U.S. customers wanting real 4G speeds pretty much had to choose Verizon…if they could get LTE at all. In 2012 more people will have access to LTE, and some will even be able to choose which carrier will supply it to them.

Verizon will be aggressively expanding their LTE network in 2012, and hopes to have it cover the area currently blanketed by their 3G coverage sometime in 2013. AT&T’s nascent LTE network is currently in 30 markets, but AT&T plans to expand coverage to 70 million Americans by the end of 2012, so your odds of being in AT&T’s 4G coverage should improve as the year wears on.

Sprint recently finished its field testing of LTE, although it has been coy about its expectations for 2012 so far. In part this is due to problems that LightSquared is having getting regulatory approval for their LTE network – Sprint had hoped to piggyback on their bandwidth to allow for a faster rollout of LTE. If LightSquared can get approval in the first few months of 2012, look for Sprint to start rolling out their network sometime in the latter half of the year.

2012 should be the year that LTE becomes more than just Verizon’s buzzword. And LTE-laden smartphones will become the norm; even the iPhone 5 is expected to ship with LTE. Which brings us to our next trend…

2) LTE will start to co-exist with decent battery life

For those who have already jumped on the LTE bandwagon, you know that the blazing-fast network speeds come with a big downside – very short battery life. Toggles that can turn LTE on and off are hot commodities in the Android Market, as switching to 3G coverage brings a huge relief to the battery life of current LTE phones.

But it won’t always be this way. There are two problems that have so far hindered LTE-equipped phones. First, at this point in time no one supplies a SoC chipset that supports LTE and voice (1x/WCDMA) on a single chip. As a result you have to have two radios running when LTE is enabled. Second, state of the art chipsets are still running on a 45nm die process. The smaller the transistors are in your silicon, the more efficiently they run (due to reductions in heat loss).

By Q2 2012 chip manufacturers expect to be sampling chips that will solve both of these issues. We should see SoCs that integrate LTE and voice into a single chip, and those chips will be based on a 28nm die process. The result should be LTE phones that are smaller, faster, and most importantly, use less of your precious battery life.

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Assuming everything stays on schedule, we most likely won’t see these improved LTE handsets until late Q2 or early Q3 2012 at the earliest. If Apple does ship an LTE-equipped iPhone 5, you can expect them to hog a lot of the world’s 28nm output, which could cause delays in integrating the advanced chipsets into many Android and WP7 phones, although companies that manufacture their own chips (like Samsung) may be able to avoid this pitfall.

Either way, the LTE phones that ship in the second half of 2012 should enjoy much improved battery life over those selling today, which is something we can all look forward to.

3) More cores (or: four heads are better than two)

With the Transformer Prime just squeaking in before the end of 2011, we already have the first quad-core mobile device. 2012 will see many more. It’s probable that in the first half of 2012 we’ll see quad-core chips mostly shipping in tablets, where size is less of a constraint. The second half of 2012 should see more quad-core phones, especially once manufacturers start shipping them on the smaller die size.

While such powerful chips will obviously make it possible for developers to create ever more demanding apps, they bring other benefits. Most quad-core chips (and some future dual-core chips) will ship with hardware specializations to help conserve battery life. Many chip makers are opting to include an extra low-power chip that can handle mundane operations, saving the multi-core processing only for more demanding apps.

Aside from gains in battery life, the advent of high-end quad-core smartphones will also allow dual-core chipsets to start cropping up in midrange devices. While this may not seem like a huge benefit to the power-user enthusiasts, it should be noted that many app developers target their software at the lowest common denominator – few developers want their apps to only work on the latest and greatest phones. With multi-core computing coming to the masses in 2012, developers will move to take greater advantage of this new midrange power, which should mean better apps for everyone.

4) Streaming TV on your mobile device

Yes, we know you can already watch TV and videos on mobile devices in 2011. But a number of factors have held back its prevalence, including network bandwidth, computing requirements, and DRM concerns by content providers. All of these issues should be ameliorated in 2012, allowing streaming video to become a much more common practice on mobile devices.

We’ve already covered the expansion of LTE coverage and the increased processing power headed our way. Combined with an increase in batter life (who wants to stream video if it kills your phone in 45 minutes?), all of the technical problems will be solved in short order. The larger problem will be convincing the content providers to share their content. Some of it is already happening – Slingboxowners and FiOS subscribers among others can access content from their TVs online. Verizon Wireless customers will get Super Bowl 46 streamed to the NFL app on their phones.

This trend will accelerate in 2012 for two reasons: First, content creators are looking for more revenue streams, and mobile devices are too large of a market to keep ignoring. A second factor is that YouTube and other online companies are starting to shell out big bucks to create their own original content.

Not only is mobile a huge market, but new competitors are stepping up to supply content to end users. If traditional media companies don’t start to offer their content in a similar way, they stand to lose out in a war they had been trying to skip altogether.

Look for lots of content to become available as 2012 wears on. By the time the Super Bowl rolls around in early 2013, it won’t even seem noteworthy that you can watch in on your phone.

5) Household integration

There’s actually one more reason that additional content will get delivered to your mobile devices soon – the hardware manufacturers will force it. CES this year is expected to be the year of the “smart TV”. TVs (perhaps many sporting deep integration of Google TV 2.0) will start to allow for networked distribution of content, integrated recording, and in many cases access to app markets. Apple may introduce an iTV later in 2012, and for those not ready to purchase a new TV many of these features will be added to Blu-Ray players and other set-top boxes.

And 2012 won’t just be about content distribution, but about automating and integrating your household around your smartphone. You can already control Google TV, Sonos distributed audio systems, and even the new Nest thermostat from your smartphone, and 2012 promises to see this trend taken further.

Last year at Google I/O Android@Home was shown off, an entire platform to bring control of light bulbs, appliances, and almost any other electronic device to your phone, and this year we will start to see that investment pay off. Developers toying with Siri have already demonstrated how you can hack “her” software to likewise enable significant automation control. Expect to see other apps, and other platforms emerge to allow our most used device – your phone – further become the hub of our lives.

6) NFC gets “real”

2012 will also be the year that Near Field Communication (NFC) starts to show up in new phones at a critical mass. Google has probably made the most noise about NFC, already shipping Google Wallet and Android Beam (assuming you’re the lucky owner of a Sprint-branded Nexus S or a Galaxy Nexus with off market apps installed). Google may be first, but there are several digital payment systems coming, including ISIS, a system supported by the major U.S. carriers not named “Sprint”.

But NFC needn’t just mean “digital wallet”. Android Beam is one example of how you can share information between mobile devices by getting them in close proximity. Social apps, Four-Square-like check-ins, interactive displays for museums, local offers, and many other uses await the wide-spread adoption of NFC. Many more Android devices will likely ship with NFC chips in the latter half of 2012, but perhaps the biggest leap could come from the iPhone 5.

Apple is notoriously stingy with their future plans, but several people have suggested that Apple is looking at integrating NFC and digital payments into the next iPhone. If that comes to pass, it will mean a huge segment of the smartphone market will begin upgrading to NFC in the last quarter or two of 2012. And that will encourage more developers and more merchants to hop onboard the NFC Express.

7) Expect the biggest advances in the last few months…again

As we’ve seen, a lot of good trends should be evident in 2012. But there will be an asymmetry to the rollout of many new features. According to recent reports, the iPhone 5 will probably ship in late Q3 of 2012…about the same timeframe as in 2011. Google seems to have settled into a similar pattern of teasing the new version of Android at their Google I/O conference, and then shipping it with a new Nexus device in the second half of the year. Research in Motion has indicated that their QNX-based BB10 handsets won’t be available until the latter half of 2012, and the recently leaked roadmap for Windows Phone also suggests that their massive Apollo update and OEM “Super Phones” will arrive in Q4 of 2012.

So we may see NFC-enabled quad-core phones and significant TV and streaming video developments in the first half of 2012 (CES should give us a good idea of what’s coming in another week), but the truly ground breaking phones will probably show up in the last quarter or so of 2012. Fair or not, if you’re on-contract upgrade comes up in July or August, consider yourself forewarned.


One thing we can say with certainty: 2012 is going to be a great year for smartphones. The devices will get more powerful, will last longer on a single charge, and will become more integral to our lives. Yet the biggest leaps in the hardware (like the SoC die process) and the newest versions of the various mobile OSes will probably not rear their heads until the latter half of the year. So enjoy the ride and be patient. The smartphone you own now should get more useful as the year wears on, and the abilities of the phones that ship 6+ months from now should truly be “next gen” technology.

It looks like 2012 should be an amazing one to watch for mobile device lovers everywhere.

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