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TAIPEI, Taiwan, June 22, 2017

MWC Q&A: The Rising Storm of Smartphone Competition

Ahead of Mobile World Congress (MWC) 2017 in Shanghai, CK Lu, research director at Gartner shares his insight about the future of smartphone competition, including 5G technology, artificial intelligence (AI) and behavioral biometrics on smartphones, and impact of the royalty dispute between Apple and Qualcomm on the Chinese smartphone ecosystem.

Q: Where is the growth coming from in the smartphone market and how is 5G going to impact it?

A: Gartner expects global sales of smartphones to end users to see minimal growth in the next five years, with 5 percent growth in 2017. Emerging Asia Pacific and Sub-Saharan Africa are the only two regions to post double digit growth in smartphone sales, at around 15 percent in 2017.

In a recent forecast update, Gartner included 5G-enabled phone sales for the first time. We could see commercial products ready as early as 2019, but significant sales volumes are not likely to be realized until 2020. Gartner expects that initial 5G network deployments will focus on islands of deployments and mobile usage is not seen as the primary use case for 5G in the early years. In 2021, we expect total sales of 5G-enabled phones to reach around 90 million units globally.

Q: What are the hot smartphone technologies in 2017 and 2018?

A: AI has been the most discussed technology in last 12 months. But for now, AI applications are still quite limited. The early implementations are only virtual personal assistant (VPA) types of services from limited providers – the digital giants, such as Google, Amazon and Apple. We believe machine learning will also improve device performance and standby time. For example, with many sensors, smartphones can better understand and learn user’s behavior, such as when to use which app. The smartphone will be able to keep frequent-used apps running in the background for quick re-launch, or to shut-down those unused apps to save memory and battery.

The use of computer vision on photo sorting is another AI application on smartphones. While this might be already available in some cloud based services, such as Google Photo, there is a need to enable this capability on the smartphone to address user’s privacy concerns.

Security technology combining machine learning, biometrics and user behavior will reduce the need for passwords for digital identification and expose users to richer and new experiences with their smartphones. Beyond fingerprint, new methods of biometric authentication such as face, voice and iris recognition are being explored. Smartphone vendors will extend the use of biometric measurements to new ways of authentication, like the user’s swipe, keystroke and scroll patterns.

Q: How is the royalty dispute between Apple and Qualcomm affecting Chinese smartphone vendors?

A: If Qualcomm has to reduce its royalties, all smartphone vendors can improve their profits and margins. It appears to be good news for all Chinese brands at first glance, but it will have a big impact in the longer term.

The royalty cut will benefit Apple the most and further fuel its R&D and marketing investments, as it controls a big portion of smartphone revenue today. This is not a major threat to Samsung and Huawei because they already have in-house chipsets to compete with Apple on the high end. But to smaller-scale Chinese brands, such as Oppo and Vivo, they still rely on Qualcomm and they don’t have group resources, even added with royalty cut from Qualcomm, to develop their own chipsets. So the impact on the Chinese smartphone ecosystem is huge – a weaker Qualcomm may lead to a bigger technology gap between many Chinese Android phone makers and tier-1 players Apple, Samsung and Huawei.

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