Smartphones are the fulfillment of a project that began with the very earliest computers. Machines the size of warehouses, capable of simple computing tasks, have over the intervening 70 years given way to pocket-size super-computers with 1 million times the processing power of those that landed Apollo 11 on the moon. When Apple unveiled the first iPhone back in 2007 it ushered in a new era of consumer electronics that has changed the way we communicate, share, learn and play. In 2022, 83% of the global population owns a smartphone, a staggering 6.648 billion people. But how was it that smartphones took over the world, and what have they been able to offer us that previous computing formats and technological breakthroughs have struggled to deliver? Below we’ll chart the course of the smartphone revolution and look to the future of this innovative sector.
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Smartphones have been so successful because they have been able to offer unparalleled flexibility and utility. Many of the popular pieces of consumer technology from the 80s and 90s have been combined in the form of modern smartphones. Smartphones typically ship with high-end digital cameras and recording equipment, MP3 players, Satellite navigation features, web browsing and text editing software, and a suite of simple yet indispensable conveniences from calculators to alarm clocks. This is all before mentioning the killer feature of modern smartphones: the app store. Android’s Google Play Store is currently home to 2.87 million apps, a number that is growing every day. Apps let users optimize their phone for their unique requirements, enabling smartphones to offer a level of flexibility and customization that is unparalleled in a portable device.
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Widespread smartphone adoption across the globe is growing, but remains unevenly distributed. While the number of smartphone users in the United States exceeds 85%, in Eritrea this number is closer to 20%. In South Africa, one third of the population currently own a smartphone, and this number is projected to increase by 1% year-on-year with no sign of slowing. This signals the fact that even in regions where uptake is less rapid, we see a consistent trend towards more widespread smartphone use. Regional entertainment platforms in South Africa are driving this uptake, as more and more people use their smart devices for watching movies, streaming sports and playing games. One such sector that is competent at differentiating itself to the specific markets it finds itself in is iGaming. Not only does this sector have a familiarity with negotiating different licensing regulations in diverse regions, but due to a flexible range of services it can adapt where brick-and-mortar variants cannot. One good example of this is how mobile casinos operating in South Africa seek to distinguish themselves from Wi-Fi-only clients by drawing attention to the fact that they’re a good option for power outages for those seeking entertainment in regions where infrastructure may be inconsistent, or unreliable. This is an example of how smartphones have proven to be a disruptive technology due to the combination of battery power and mobile data reception that enable them to operate in areas where traditional computers and technology reliant on the electrical grid struggle to do so.
In the early days of Apple’s app store, the majority of games available were casual titles, minigames, and puzzles. Nowadays, there are over 900,000 individual games on the app store, and many of those are full-fledged ports, or adaptations, of mainstream game console titles. This is due to increased smartphone performance, and greater investment in smartphones as “first choice” gaming platforms. A study by DFC intelligence found that, while in westernized regions, people split their time equally between playing games on their smartphone and on their home consoles, in various other global markets such as Latin America and South East Asia, respondents were 1.5x more likely to use their smartphone as their sole gaming device. As smartphones grow more powerful and benefit from increasingly high resolution displays they will continue to displace laptop computers and conventional operating systems, in such regions.
The Future Recently we’ve witnessed the largest change in smartphone design since the inception of the first iPhone thanks to the development of foldable displays. These devices, such as the Samsung Galaxy Fold series and the Oppo Find N, offer users the ability to unfold their devices into a larger tablet-style display at will for added flexibility and functionality. We can expect to see many more innovative designs following this design philosophy, with rolling displays and innovative accordion-shaped folding formats among those all set to hit the market in the coming years.