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5G’s Arrival Will Flip Phones on Their Heads


The buzz around two new foldable phones – Motorola’s Razr and Samsung’s Galaxy Z Flip – signals an end to Apple’s decade-long stranglehold on smartphone design and potentially leads to a world where phone screens no longer exist.

In 2007, the iPhone changed communications as we know it and pushed Apple’s Steve Jobs into the pantheon of Silicon Valley CEOs. The iPhone’s historic success led to copycats, particularly in shape and style, or what those in the smartphone industry call form factor.

It’s ironic that Apple, one of the most innovative companies in history, created an ocean of sameness with our most important personal computing device: our smartphones. However, we are on the cusp the 5G network revolution, which will reshape – and even un-shape – the mobile phone as it is deconstructed to better fit modern life.

For the past decade since, nearly everyone’s been carrying a similar phone: a sleek 6” hunk of glass with an exterior that has changed very little since the first iPhone was made. While there has been significant progress in the capabilities and function of the device, that change has been virtually undetectable from the outside.

This period of calm was preceded by significant upheaval in phone design. In fact, the earlier eras of the mobile phone bounced back and forth between emphasizing either form or function. In the late 1990s, phone makers were obsessed with getting smaller, peaking with Motorola’s tiny StarTEC. The early 2000s saw the rise of functionality as 2G allowed phones to better work as, well, phones. Nokia then led the way in prioritizing function over form, with dozens of models that looked virtually the same but worked well.

Then came Motorola’s original Razr, which cut through the market with its sleek flip-phone design in 2004. The Razr made people proud to display their mobile phones again, even though as an actual device it left a lot to be desired. A year later, the Blackberry Pearl debuted, which led to the rise of a usable keyboard – and usable email – as a requirement for mobile phones.

Now, with 5G looming, everything is about to change again, and not for aesthetic purposes. After all, form factor is not just about how a phone looks but also how it is designed to function in the modern world. On this count, any smartphone is lacking. The proof can be found on the sidewalks of any city: hordes of hunchbacked humans stumbling through the streets with their eyes looking down, mostly oblivious to their surroundings.

The future of phones will not be phones but functions; companies are already working to deconstruct the smartphone taking advantage of new functionality and the increasingly connected world. Here are the main elements of the deconstructed phone future:

  • Glasses – It’s true that attempts to introduce smart glasses have been underwhelming. But the technology is there and the upright ergonomics it engenders helps people better connect with their environments. In fact, last spring Google, somewhat surprisingly, launched a redesigned Glass for business customers. After 5G is fully running and hardware needs wane, we will all go to smart glasses and never look back.
  • Watches – Smartwatches are gradually gaining popularity and functionality since they’ve become connected to the smartphone and not as a standalone device.
  • Foldable devices – After the screens on some new flip phones cracked earlier this year, foldables were written off by many. But with the reimagining of old friend Razr and the Z-Flip launching on Valentine’s Day, the “clamshells” are back with a vengeance.
  • Companion devices – Verizon recently debuted the Palm, a device the size of a thick credit card that syncs with smartphones. While the companion Palm does not make calls, it allows users to access all the smartphone’s other apps and capabilities so they can stay connected while jogging or in other situations where lugging a larger phone is physically or socially awkward.
  • Connected car – As the debate continues over self-driving vehicles, carmakers are adding all kinds of new functionalities to cabins that are built around drivers’ smartphones.

AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson recently predicted that 5G will lead to the disappearance of the smartphone because storage and computing will migrate to the network. Stephenson envisions “a world without screens,” in which content will be distributed through smartglasses and in ways we can’t yet imagine.

While a world without screens seems impossible to imagine today, change is coming very rapidly. We have spent the past 20 years building the smartphone, but it may take far less time to deconstruct it.

Published by Soumen Ganguly – Partner in Atman Solon’s Boston office, who focuses on mobile and converged products and services.