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Tech in 2013: The future of mobile

We're mad about mobile here at ITProPortal, so much so that when we set about compiling some predictions for 2013, we found it near on impossible to condense our smartphone-related speculation into the kind of bite-sized chunk typical of clairvoyant roundups. The solution? To give the future of mobile phones a dedicated chapter, of course. What did we manage to prise from our AMOLED crystal ball? Well, as a taster, we think that Amazon is on track to continue the expansion of its popular Kindle range with a mid-range handset, but there's little chance of the mythical 'Facebook phone' making an appearance this year. Appetite well and truly whetted? Read on, because from sure-fire launches like that of the Samsung Galaxy S4, to make or break releases like BlackBerry 10, by way of bold suggestions of an Apple iWatch, 2013 is set to be a watershed year for mobile technology.

It's evolution, baby

Mobile is without question one of the fastest evolving sectors in the technology world. It's crazy to think that back in 2010, WVGA displays and single-core processors were cutting-edge specifications, such is the speed at which the industry has changed in just three years. In 2013, smartphones will continue to advance apace. More devices will feature the kind of quad-core SoC set-ups found on 2012's defining handset, the Samsung Galaxy S3, and the new year is widely expected to feature the arrival of the world's first eight-core mobile phone.

That landmark could be reached by wildcard Chinese manufacturer ZTE and its rumoured Apache handset, or perhaps eight-core processing will be a headline feature on the Samsung Galaxy S4, which has been tipped with a February 2013 launch at Mobile World Congress in Barcelona. Whatever the case, the S4's stiffest competition is likely to come from Apple's iPhone 5S, which could be released in the first-half of 2013 if early speculation is to be believed. That said, there's every chance that we'll be waiting until the Autumn to see Apple's new handset.

It's far from a two-horse race, mind, with both Nokia and Google ending 2012 with widely lauded products in the shape of the Lumia 920 and Nexus 4, respectively. Both devices should prosper in the new year, albeit for very different reasons. With regards to the former, Windows Phone 8 adoption will gather steam as punters grow weary of the duopoly formed by malware-prone Android and suffocatingly proprietary iOS. As app support improves and consumer interest increases, so too will handset choice, and Nokia will respond by offering a less bulky Lumia that packs sharp specifications into a more svelte frame.

Thus far plagued by supply issues, the latter Google device will continue to fly off shelves at £239 when it becomes more readily available and threatens to do for 2013 what the Nexus 7 tablet did in 2012 - dramatically disrupt existing price structures. To that end, expect the Internet giant to continue its adventures in the smartphone arena with the release of a 4G LTE Google 'X Phone' manufactured by new partner Motorola and featuring a raft of top-notch hardware specifications and the next-generation of Android, version 5.0 Key Lime Pie. Intended to take on the iPhone among other devices, we think we're looking at an autumn-2013 release for the aforementioned contraption.

If Google does run with the idea of a cheap, competitively kitted-out smartphone, it's likely other manufacturers will be forced to play ball. Samsung half-heartedly flirted with the idea in 2012, but its Galaxy S3 relative, the Galaxy S3 Mini, ended up as less of a miniature powerhouse and more of a disaster. Someone other than Google will work out a winning formula in 2013, but it won't be Apple: despite reports to contrary, the US company is unlikely to experiment with a pared-down product, and will instead continue to simply pitch its older products at more frugal consumers and emerging markets.

The age of intangible

Once the parameters have been shifted, consumers will start to expect more from their high-end handsets - a simple processor boost won't cut it for much longer. In this sense, 2013 will herald the beginning of the 'age of the intangible' in the smartphone world: see Samsung's soon-to-be debuted flexible display technology, Amazon's application to patent airbag protection for handsets, and speculative reports of an Apple 'iWatch' for examples of curiosity-rousing fodder. The latter rumour in particular could prove a sign of things to come - we're tipping wearable technology to take off in a big way, and mobiles will be at the forefront of this revolution. We also think that there's an incredible amount of room to innovate in the camera department and that the Nokia PureView 808 and Samsung Galaxy Camera are just the tip of the iceberg. In 2013, we will witness a further increase in convergence between handsets and dedicated snappers and, very possibly, the release of a seminal product in this vein. Oh, and a transparent smartphone - that would be really cool.

Similarly, the intangibles of yesteryear, near-field communication and wireless charging, will continue to roll out apace in 2013. Expect more big names in both the public and private sector to have joined the NFC party by this time next year, as the technology expands its reach beyond early adopters and trial environments and into the mainstream. We're predicting teething problems aplenty and at least one high-profile disaster gracing our "Top 10 tech fails" list next year. If experience is anything to go by, it will probably involve either the banks or Britain's public transport infrastructure - and possibly both.

Similarly, wireless charging will become a commonplace handset feature and the hospitality sector in particular will respond, at least in early-adopting countries like the US and Japan. That means us unruly Brits will be clamouring for the ability to juice up over our morning coffee the same way we agitated for 4G LTE in 2012, but don't get your hopes up too soon - limited integration in business class lounges and the like is a possibility, but your local Wetherspoons is still lucky to have decent Wi-Fi.

Of more immediate concern is the continued rollout of the UK's new LTE network, presently presided over exclusively by EE. However, Ofcom recently confirmed the bidders for January's 4G auction and once the high-speed spectrum has been allocated, the UK's main carriers will be looking to get up and running as soon as possible. Spring 2013 is the current aim for widespread availability, though some of the companies involved will inevitably suffer setbacks along the way. There's also a wild card in the pack in the form of Hong Kong-based PCCW. Could the Asia-centric ICT firm be a surprise new entry to the UK telecoms market in 2013?

Moreover, the arrival of faster mobile data speeds will serve to further blur the line between smartphones and tablets. It's no secret that the rise of the 'phablet' emerged as one of 2012's most important tech stories, and as consumers begin to pay more for their mobile devices - the 4G LTE norm is expected to hover between £30 and £40 a month - it follows that they will want to do more with them. As Samsung proved with its popular 5.5in Galaxy Note 2 hybrid, the additional real estate enables significant specification improvements and enhanced capabilities, particularly with regards to gaming and media consumption. This new reality, coupled with improved connectivity, means that we're closer than ever to a one-device world in 2013, so expect at least one manufacturer - renegade Chinese firms like ZTE and Huawei spring to mind - to flirt with the idea of a 6in contraption that does a lot more than merely display eBooks.

Heins' newest flavour - success?

As 2013 dawns, Canadian firm and erstwhile mobile giant Research in Motion will no doubt be resolving to permanently detach the "beleaguered" tag that has accompanied it throughout much of 2012. The company's future hopes of association with a more complimentary verb seemingly rest on its forthcoming BlackBerry 10 OS, due to be unveiled in New York on 30 January. RIM's latest offering is being touted as a radically re-imagined user experience and we firmly believe the market would benefit from increased competition. The question is whether BB10 will help RIM to break out of its present niche enterprise rut and regain some of the mainstream momentum that it enjoyed in the heady 'CrackBerry' days.

In this endeavour, the Canadian firm can learn much from Microsoft, whose Windows Phone 8 launch illustrated a key aspect of the mobile landscape circa 2013: the finer points of operating systems get debated on forums by nerds (unless you're Apple and decide that Berlin is a mini-cab firm in central Antarctica), while flagship handsets make headlines. WP8 is a force to watch this year largely because Nokia's Lumia 920 has impressed, so for RIM to come anywhere close to realising some of its more outrageous ambitions - CEO Thorsten Heins claimed that BB10 would kill off the laptop within three years - it has to deliver on the hardware front. So what does the future hold for Mr Heins and his chums?

Reports indicate that RIM has developed six BB10 launch devices, covering the full consumer spectrum from entry-level to high-end, with the new BlackBerry handsets provisionally split into 'L-Series' touch-screen phones and 'N-Series' mobiles featuring QWERTY keyboards. It's a sound-enough strategy and one that covers all the bases, but will the line-up feature the kind of showstopper necessary to compete with the iPhone 5, Galaxy S3, and, indeed, Lumia 920s of the world? Based on speculative chatter surrounding a project codenamed Aristo, we think it might. Some of the specifications brandied about in connection with the mystery device include a quad-core Qualcomm SoC set-up clocked at 1.5GHz, 2GB of RAM, and a 4.65in, 1,280 x 720 pixel display - potentially the basis of a seriously tempting bit of kit that would make Joe iPhone raise an eyebrow. That said, the road in 2013 is still going to be rocky for RIM, and if we were to venture a more definitive prediction, it would be that reports regarding the potential licensing of the BlackBerry 10 operating system to third-party manufacturers comes to fruition sooner rather than later.

Concept image credit: Ciccarese Design