Robust application stores: For better or for worse, smartphones are largely about applications (although you won't get Microsoft, which is focusing on "hubs" with Windows Phone 7, to admit that). Having an application storefront with the breadth and depth to match market leader Apple (NASDAQ:AAPL) might seem elementary, but this year it became absolutely essential.
"Applications are clearly table stakes for smartphones," said Gartner analyst Michael Gartenberg. "It's not something just power users are going to adopt. It's mainstream users, and that's what they're expecting."
Apple's App Store now boasts more than 300,000 apps; Google's (NASDAQ:GOOG) Android Market has more than 100,000. Research In Motion's (NASDAQ:RIMM) BlackBerry App World, meanwhile, has yet to crack even 20,000. Indeed, part of the reason Palm stumbled earlier this year was due to its app-based Catch-22: The company did not sell large volumes of devices and thus never attracted a vast array of developers to its webOS platform, which in turn likely hindered sales among app-hungry shoppers.
Large touchscreen displays: The touchscreen phenomenon that engulfed the wireless industry with the advent of the iPhone was in full flower this year.
With the exception of some low-end and mid-range phones, a 3.5-inch screen--especially for smartphones with slab-like form factors--became the norm.
Although several devices pushed the screen-size envelope (think of HTC's HD2, Evo and HD7, and Motorola's Droid X, which all have 4.3-inch screens), the sweet spot seemed to be around 3.5 or 3.7 inches. Vendors generally geared larger screens toward consumers interested in consuming media like videos.
Next year, analysts said, the arms race for screen resolution--which Apple started with its Retina Display on the iPhone 4, and which Samsung has continued with its Super AMOLED displays for its Galaxy S line--will continue at a rapid pace. "We will get a resolution that is like Retina Display where the technology is more advanced than the eye," said Nielsen analyst Roger Entner. "And then we will stop. Because otherwise it's like double infinity."
800 MHz processor (1 GHz for high-end phones): Faster processors became de rigueur in smartphones this year, though analysts quibble over what the exact benchmark is.
"You can segment this any number of ways," Gartenberg said. "But I think increasingly, if we're not there yet, that 1 GHz mark is getting very close to the standard."
Multitasking and video recording have helped speedy processors become standard fare. The 1 GHz benchmark became especially important this year after a number of high-profile, 1 GHz-powered smartphone launches, including the Evo, Samsung's Galaxy S line, the HTC Incredible, Motorola Droid Pro and others. Indeed, all of Microsoft's Windows Phone 7 devices can touch the 1 GHz bar.
The 1 GHz benchmark "may have been table stakes for a phone that a carrier was promoting as a flagship device," said NPD Group analyst Ross Rubin. He also said that the absence of a powerhouse processor may have hampered Palm and BlackBerry gadget sales.