What does the future hold for the tech we use every day? What are the major trends to be aware of? These are the big questions after Europe’s biggest tech trade event, IFA 2017. Our Technology Editor joined 250,000 visitors checking out what’s coming next. Here are his top takeaways
1 We’re finally maxing out on phone screen sizes as battery life improves
It looks like six inches is the farthest we’re willing to push it on our smartphones.
For years, handset screens have been scaling up. Indeed, it’s hard to fathom that the standard screen on a phone just three years ago was only 3.5 inches across. Today, the average screen size is five inches, even for budget entry-level phones. That’s a doubling in size in a relatively short period of time. However, we are now definitively approaching the final size ceiling for our phone displays. This is because manufacturers have nowhere left to push the screen size without making the devices into actual tablets.
At present, Samsung, LG and, probably, Apple next week Apple, are executing their final screen-enlarging push by getting the display to cover the entire front side of the handset, squeezing out the bezels. In the case of Samsung’s Note 8, this results in a screen that’s 6.3-inches in size, a hair larger than its Galaxy S8 Plus, which has a 6.2-inch screen using the same bezel-eliminating method.
But anything bigger than this would make the device into something resembling an iPad mini. And while such a screen would have its benefits, it simply wouldn’t fit into a pocket or ever be usable with a single hand.
One happy by-product of the ever-larger phones, incidentally, is an improvement in battery life. Even mid-range models such as Motorola’s new X4 now have batteries of 3,400mAh or higher (compared to the iPhone 7’s battery of 2,700mAh). The extra battery life is due to more physical space to house a bigger battery. But it’s also a recognition from manufacturers that people now use their phones for much longer periods, and for much more media-intensive purposes, than was the case in previous years.
2 It’s getting increasingly difficult to tell TVs apart
Walk into any electronics superstore and you’ll be hard pushed to find any real differences between today’s premium TVs. If IFA is anything to go by, it’s getting even more homogenous.
They’re all thin, flat screens with tiny logos. They all have 4K. Most are now getting HDR, which marginally improves detail and your ability to see the colour black. But there’s no technology that gives any one TV set the kind of edge that anyone is really talking about. Earlier advances such as 4K have been integrated into no-name, entry level televisions that cost €499. (Even now, 4K content still represents a tiny percentage of programming that people can watch on an everyday basis. It’s for this reason that no-one is even trying to talk up 8K, despite a few models on show at IFA with that resolution.)
Furthermore, TV manufacturers have used up a fair dollop of credibility on supposed technological breakthroughs that were flops. Remember curved TVs and 3D? You don’t see many of those anymore. In the last two years, the promotional push has been around Oled technology and HDR. But neither provides a significant difference to the quality of content that the ordinary person watches or streams.
Aside from screen size and thinness, we’re simply finding it harder to tell one TV from another these days. So the giants – Samsung, LG, Sony and Panasonic – have eased off hyping the products up for the time being.
3 Amazon Alexa is spreading everywhere
Voice activation is proving to be one of the most pervasive hit technologies of the last three years. In particular, it’s proving popular in homes with gadgets such as Google Home or Amazon Echo.
A walk through the halls of IFA showed a growing number of devices loading voice-recognition systems from Amazon or Google into their systems. This is particularly noticeable in the world of speakers and ‘smart home’ gadgets. But it’s also now present in phones. For example, despite dual cameras and object-recognition technology, what most interested commentators about Motorola’s new X4 phone seemed to be that it can handle both Google and Amazon Alexa voice commands.
Alas, Amazon Alexa is not yet officially supported for the Irish market. (Neither is Prime, its shopping service.) So if you get an Amazon Echo, it will work as a (mediocre) music speaker. But if you ask it about the weather, you’ll have specify the weather “in Dublin” (or wherever you live) as opposed to simply asking about “the weather”, which you would do in an Alexa-supported territory such as the UK, the US or Germany.
4 Tiny memory storage cards will soon hold 1,000GB
Over the last five years, memory cards have not been able to keep up with popular usage patterns in phone, camera and PC media. Phone cameras, in particular, have been getting far better for both stills and videos.
It’s not unusual now for an ordinary person to shoot a few different videos on a daily basis, using up 100MB (0.1GB) of their phone or camera’s 16GB or 32GB storage memory in the process. This has been a great boon to companies like Dropbox and iCloud, both of which now make ever-increasing sums from people’s monthly cloud storage subscriptions.
To tackle this, some phones allow you to put a MicroSD memory card into the phone to hold photos or videos. But even then, most cards are limited to 32GB or 64GB, which fill up quickly for people taking a lot of pictures. Sandisk chose IFA to unveil its newest memory card, which has a whopping 400GB of storage in a little plastic thing the size of your little fingernail. While this won’t initially be cheap (costing well over €100), the good news is that this will make still-hefty 128GB MicroSD cards cheaper, with prices now already falling below €50 (the equivalent of five months’ cloud storage fees with Dropbox).
5 The standalone camera market may soon be dead
A couple of years ago, camera manufacturers such as Canon and Nikon boasted huge stands at shows such as IFA and CES in Las Vegas.
At this year’s Berlin show, Canon (the world’s biggest camera manufacturer by some distance) didn’t turn up, despite one new major product launch and several smaller ones in recent weeks. Olympus was absent too, despite a brand new camera launch (the E-M10 Mark ii) the same week. Once-mighty Nikon had arguably the smallest tent in the whole conference, manned by two people and a handful of D850 cameras (with no battery grips or new lenses). When I visited it, there was no-one else going near it. Even BlackBerry had more visitors.
Fujifilm, which is one of the few camera companies actually holding its own in the market, skipped out on the event too.
The message the camera market is sending out is a desperate one – it’s sinking and its biggest practitioners can barely afford to take out a stand at the world’s most important trade fairs.
Even if they can afford it, they don’t think anyone will be bothered to go over and look at their wares, which are starting to take on the aura of niche professional machines rather than fun devices to tempt a mass market.
To be fair, both Panasonic and Sony had plenty of camera equipment, lenses and other optical gear on site. But that was only as part of their giant enclosures which featured everything else from TVs and fridges to smart home speakers.
Ironically, talk of cameras dominated some of the launches at IFA – but it was in phones and drones. Several phone manufacturers unveiled dual camera models at the event, while DJI hyped up the large enhanced cameras on its new Phantom 4 Pro Obsidian model. This is sadly typical of the global trend. Cameras are now spoken about and measured in conversations about phones, not standalone DSLRs, compact or mirrorless devices.
In a vicious circle that will accelerate the departure of cameras from the mainstream, camera manufacturers are now paying less and less attention to ordinary consumers and retrenching to professionals or wealthy hobbyists. As such, while the price of most tech goods is going down, the price of new cameras is going up, with fewer and fewer major launches focusing on sub-€1,000 models.
6 Drones are finally starting to pipe down
What’s the biggest downside of drones? For many, it’s the irritating noise they make. As drones cannot be flown in built-up urban areas, they tend to be flown in rural beauty spots instead.
But this sometimes comes with a price: the high-pitched buzzing sound they emit, similar to a giant mosquito. DJI, which has around 70pc of the drone market, announced an update to one of its main models with a massive reduction in noise. Its Mavic Pro Platinum is 60pc quieter than the previous Mavic Pro.
This is a big deal and could help improve relations between people legally flying drones in beauty spots and others trying to enjoy the tranquillity of those areas.
It will not, however, do anything to stop the growing number of sites around Ireland that are banning drones. Earlier this year, Heritage Ireland declared that drones may not be flown at National Monument Sites such as castles, abbeys and neolithic sites around the country.
7 Nobody’s shouting about wearables anymore
Two years ago, you couldn’t move at a big convention like IFA without encountering some sort of ‘wearable’.
There were watches, rings, bracelets and no end to ‘smart’ clothes (even socks). Notifications, payments and voice control were to be the big reasons that we would don mini-internet jewellery.
But the initial hype wave has died a death. Instead of email, it turns out that punters mainly want their watches for fitness.
This has resulted in the march of smartwatch manufacturers slowing to a shuffle. Even giant companies like LG and Huawei are thinning out (or stopping altogether) their smartwatch ranges. Samsung, which was supposed to be biggest smartwatch competitor to Apple, has re-focused its efforts almost totally on fitness.
“The problem that’s afflicted smartwatches over the last few years is that they’re more about technology looking for a problem to solve,” said James Park, co-founder and chief executive of fitness tracker company Fitbit. “There really wasn’t a killer app.”
What scope there was beyond fitness has been hoovered up Apple, which is estimated to have captured some 70pc of the €9bn smartwatch market. It seems that when people aren’t running or swimming, they’re perfectly happy to look at their phone for news rather than something hanging off another part of their body.
8 The generic electronics sector could still eat some major brands
Did you know that there are Polaroid laptops and TVs? Or that there are hundreds of speaker brands, with very little to choose between them in sound quality?
This is the reality of Foxconn and the other super-factories in China. Some 80pc of the electronics industry is a commodity business.
Companies like Panasonic, Canon or Fuji, with their own factories in Japan, are increasingly an exotic rarity. We may gravitate toward brands such as Samsung and Apple, but many of the things we say we want are now being rolled out at basement prices.
Even phones could soon suffer this fate. The newest crop of budget smartphones are set to have 5.5-inch screens and dual cameras, similar to today’s top-level iPhone 7 Plus. Much of the incremental improvements are occurring in software.
But Google provides the same Android updates to any Android device, whether it costs €799 or just €99. Of course, some argue that it was ever thus. Brands still prevail because they advertise – creating demand – and providing shops with higher margins when customers agree to pay a higher price than a generic alternative.
Whether online sales will change this remains to be seen. In general, physical stores are starting to see an accelerated decline in their business due to competition from Amazon and other giant online etailers.