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The 5 most important mobile trends from CES 2019

by Lewis Leong on Jan 16, 2019

CES is the world’s largest consumer electronics show in the world and for good reason. Just about every major technology company flocks to Las Vegas every year to show off what they’re betting on for the year. This means CES is a great time to take a look at the larger technological landscape to see what we can expect in our immediate future.

While CES isn’t a mobile-focused trade show, the technologies that companies exhibit give hints of how the mobile ecosystem will change. Let’s dive into the five most important CES 2019 trends that will affect the mobile industry.

Apple is transitioning to a services company

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Apple has traditionally stayed out of CES, opting to host its own product announcements but that’s changed this year. For the first time in recent memory, Apple had something to announce during CES: AirPlay and HomeKit will be opened up to third-party TV makers and iTunes will be coming to specific TVs in the near future.

While this isn’t too exciting from a consumer perspective, it has huge implications for Apple’s future plans. It’s no secret that Apple’s iPhone business is starting to stagnate, resulting in production cuts, trade-in incentives, and aggressive marketing of the “affordable” iPhone XR. News that iTunes would be coming preinstalled on TVs also means Apple admits its Apple TV set-top box just can’t keep up with competitors.

For years, the iPhone carried Apple, turning it into one of the biggest companies in the world but with the iPhone slipping, it’s time for Apple to pivot. That pivot is bolstering its services like Apple Music, iCloud, Apple Pay, iTunes, and the Mac and App Stores. Apple surprised everyone late last year by allowing Apple Music to be used on the Amazon Echo. The company is also working to launch its own TV service and has been investing heavily in original programming. And with the App Store breaking records over the holidays, it’s easy to see why Apple is putting more emphasis on its services than ever before.

What this means on the mobile side is that iPhone users are holding on to their phones for longer and longer, and Apple cannot rely on users to upgrade on a two-year cycle anymore. To combat this, Apple could even turn its iPhone business into one of its services, allowing users to lease iPhones instead of buying them outright. The company already has the iPhone Upgrade Program but it currently uses a third-party financing company. Apple may bring this program in-house and increase incentives for users to join in the near future.  

Google and Amazon dominate the virtual assistant space

Both Amazon and Google dominated the virtual assistant conversation at CES 2019, showing off every gadget under the sun that will support each company’s voice platform. Amazon Alexa can be found on millions of products, including a $7,000 toilet. Google Assistant is everywhere too, integrating into every facet of your home life. In an attempt to drown out Amazon’s assistant at CES 2019, Google turned up the spectacle at the show, even as far as creating a Google Assistant ride that rivals Disney’s It’s a Small World.

The good news for consumers is that they won’t have to pick a side as smart gadget makers are integrating both assistants into their products. For those in the mobile space, the rise in voice assistants means you need a voice strategy for your app. Voice may be the input but it won’t always be the output, so your app must consider how best to provide utility to users, whether that’s with an audio or visual response now that Alexa and Google Assistant powered displays are on the market.

Beyond competing on device support, Google was the only company that announced new features for its virtual assistant. Soon Google Assistant will be able to check you into your flight, retrieve your boarding passes, and upgrade your flight, all with your voice. Additionally, Google Assistant will have an “interpreter” mode, where it will serve up live translations to help you communicate with someone in another language.  

Siri felt noticeably absent from CES 2019, even though Apple announced that it would increase HomeKit support from third-party devices, and Microsoft’s Cortana and Samsung’s Bixby didn’t even register on the radar. For now, the battle for virtual assistant supremacy is between Amazon and Google.

Display tech will drive smartphones and tablet design

While smartphone design has seemingly stagnated in 2018 with every company releasing a slate with a notch, the next big wave of mobile innovation may actually come from the displays that power the mobile experience. At CES 2019, foldable and rollable displays stole the show. LG showed off its rollable TV you can actually buy and Samsung teased more about its upcoming foldable smartphone, the Galaxy F.

Samsung pushed the smartphone market forward with its bendable OLED displays that power its Galaxy line of phones as well as the current iPhone Xs and iPhone Xs Max. The company is doing it again with its foldable Galaxy F, opening the doors to innovative smartphone designs.

There could be a foldable device that changes how we compute on the go.

While the jury is still out on whether we need a foldable smartphone, there could be a foldable device that changes how we compute on the go. The stagnant tablet market could get a boost if tablet makers can create a foldable device that replaces our laptops. The iPad Pro is the closest laptop replacement Apple has ever made, thanks to its ridiculously powerful processors. Now imagine a foldable iPad that folds up and runs Mac OS. This device could seriously shake up the tablet market.

While OLED display tech allows for foldable phones, it may be overtaken in the near future by MicroLED. These displays work by having microscopic LEDs that can be individually lit, much like OLED displays today. This means MicroLED displays may have all the benefits of OLED (dark blacks, better contrast, low power consumption, fast response time, and brightness) while addressing its deficiencies (lifespan, burn-in, and dim whites). This display tech will hit TVs first but will trickle down to smartphones just like OLED did.  

5G is all the hype but will take years to roll out

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We’ve already covered how 5G will reshape the mobile industry and change mobile gaming, but we’re still years away from this becoming a reality. CES 2019 was all about the possibilities of 5G, but there are some serious hurdles to overcome first.

One of the biggest challenges facing 5G is an inconsistent rollout and poor marketing. Last week, AT&T began showing an icon for “5G E” on its customers’ smartphones, even though they’re running on the same 4G network. This shouldn’t be surprising as AT&T did the same thing when transitioning from 3G to 4G. 2019 will be the first year consumers will actually have access to the 5G network, and we’re currently waiting for the first wave of 5G smartphones to drop. Apple is reportedly skipping 5G for its next iPhone, which isn’t surprising as the company typically waits for new technology to mature before jumping in.

Another huge technical hurdle is the fact that some frequencies that 5G works on don’t penetrate buildings and other objects as well as 4G. This means more towers will have to be installed everywhere. This may be possible in urban environments but rural users will be left waiting for 5G to come to them.

5G will undoubtedly change how mobile users interact with content and enable more smart devices to connect to the internet than ever before, but we’ll have to wait while the infrastructure is built before we see the impacts of a next-generation network.

VR continues gathering dust

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We’ve been waiting for VR to take off ever since the first Oculus Dev Kit was released back in 2013 but the platform appears to have stalled if CES 2019 is any indication. There were some VR advancements, the most exciting being HTC’s Vive Pro Eye, the company’s flagship VR headset which now includes eye tracking. Eye tracking definitely helps make VR more immersive and can increase the graphics quality though foveated rendering, a technique that reallocates graphics processing to increase the quality of things you’re looking at while decreasing quality of things in your periphery. But it’s not exactly VR’s killer feature.

HTC also announced its hybrid Vive Cosmos VR headset, which doesn’t require external sensors and utilizes fully tracked motion controllers. The Cosmos can be powered by a PC but supports “other platforms,” with HTC suggesting that users may be able to hook it up to their smartphones. While HTC is positioning the Cosmos as its most consumer-friendly VR headset, it still requires a cabled connection unlike the Oculus Quest, which still doesn’t have a final release date.

VR is waiting for its iPad moment.

For now, it feels like VR is waiting for its iPad moment. The iPad wasn’t the first tablet, but it was the first tablet that mainstream audiences actually wanted to use. The Oculus Quest is a step in the right direction being completely wireless and relatively affordable, but it won’t take VR mainstream. VR as a platform is here to stay, but companies are finding it difficult to create a product that resonates with mainstream audiences and worth the high price the necessary hardware commands.

AR, on the other hand, is closer to being mainstream. Companies like North are working on AR glasses that don’t look ridiculous (remember Google Glass?). The company’s Focals AR glasses look like a regular pair of glasses, albeit with chunky arms, and allow users to get condensed notifications for their calendar, texts, weather, and directions. And of course, they work with Amazon Alexa. This is probably the closest mass-market AR headset we’ve seen but even North’s co-founder, Aaron Grant, admits that AR won’t reach mass appeal for another few years.

Want more insights into the future of the mobile industry? Be sure to read our series, The Future of Mobile Gaming, where we take a deep dive into the trends that are driving change across the mobile gaming ecosystem. Also, check out the biggest mobile game trends of 2019.

Lewis Leong is AppLovin's Content Marketing Manager.

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