The future of smartphones is coming--and I like it

Phil Goldstein
BARCELONA, Spain--Last year at Mobile World Congress I wrote that smartphone and table vendors "need to offer truly differentiated services and not just me-too hardware." A year later I can report that OEMs have made progress but I think there is much more work to be done.

Devices are starting to have very similar attributes. LTE, quad-core processors, HD-resolution screens and other bells and whistles are becoming standard in devices. That's why service differentiation is so critical.

So what are OEMs doing on software and services to set their offerings apart? What I've seen so far this week is certainly promising.

HTC didn't announce any devices at the show here (it announced the HTC One last week at its own event), but the new software features of the One should help HTC stand apart from other Android players and lead it back to growth. One feature is "Zoes," which can turn a series of photos and videos into mini-movies that can be remixed and shared with friends. Even more significant is HTC's BlinkFeed, which turns the device's home screen into a single live stream of personally relevant information that includes social updates, entertainment and lifestyle updates, news and photos. It's a little jarring at first to have that be the default homescreen, but I think it could help people stay on top of their social updates and the news and reduce time moving in and out of apps.

Nokia (NYSE:NOK) is also making inroads on services, highlighting its strength in imaging and location-based services. Nokia announced that its widely respected Here Maps, Drive and Transit services will soon come to non-Nokia Windows Phones. The company also rebranded its augmented reality City Lens service as "LiveSight. " LiveSight powers a new service called Place Tag, which adds location stamps to photos with relevant information. City Lens was always my favorite service for Nokia's Lumia Windows Phones and I'm glad to see that it's evolving and powering new features.

Samsung Electronics is also innovating on services. The company has a new application called Video Discovery that's available on the company's newly announced Galaxy Note 8. The service recommends TV content to users, allows them to download movies and TV shows from Samsung's Media Hub, Blockbuster or Netflix, and lets users share content between tablets and TVs. Samsung has said very little about this so far, but it's expected to add support for more content services and devices. One device likely to get those additional services is the Galaxy S IV. This video recommendation and purchasing engine could become a key part of Samsung's brand.

It's great to see hardware vendors embracing content and services. But this is only the beginning. I spoke with Paul Pugh, vice president of creative and software innovation at design firm frog, who told me he is bullish on the prospects for wearable computing such as Google's Glass project. "The technologies are arriving at a very quick pace but [the onus is] on design to make it work," he said, adding that companies will need to "make it comfortable, useful and something we can't live without" for the concept to translate into successful products.  

More broadly though, he said he envisions a future in which our mobile devices are listening to what is going on around us and will automatically launch apps and services when we need them. "This new computing power will be able to serve up the right application and information at the right time, [and] we'll be able to think, how did we ever live without this?" he said.

Pugh's vision is intriguing and, after what I've seen this week at Mobile World Congress, I'm hopeful that device makers are making progress in that direction.  I can't wait to be there when it arrives.--Phil