From the Editor's Desk: Android trends for 2017
BY ALEX DOBIE
Let's talk about where it's all going.
We'll soon be closing out another year, so it's time to look ahead to 2017, and see if we can't take a shot at some of the major trends in mobile in general, and Android in particular. A new round of flagship phones guarantees specs will get speccier, there'll always be expensive new toys on which to burn your cash. And people will still lose their minds over new devices from Samsung, Google, and to a lesser extent other phone makers.
But what about VR, smartwatches, 4K phones, Android laptops and future Google hardware? Let's gaze into our crystal ball and see where the Android world might be heading in 2017.
1. 4K phones will become a thing — because of VR
Sure, the Sony Xperia Z5 Premium has existed for over a year — a phone which scored a notable first, but failed to do much of anything with its Ultra HD display. However 2017 will be the year 4K phones go mainstream, and the driving factor behind that will be VR.
That's not to say every high-end phone will be 4K. (The Samsung Galaxy S8 is variously reported to either use, or not use, a 4K screen, depending on which rumors you believe.) But the extra pixel density of 4K, while totally over-the-top for most stuff you'll do on your phone, makes a huge difference in VR. When the screen's just a few inches from your eyeballs, the difference between 500 and 800-ish pixels per inch will seem like night and day.
Outside of VR mode, expect 2017's 4K phones to run downscaled at 1080p or Quad HD to save power.
2. Android will effectively become a desktop OS
Nobody can quite agree on what form it'll take, but Android on laptops and convertibles — whether it's the rumored Andromeda project, an extension of Android apps on Chrome OS, or something entirely different — will happen in 2017. How Google handles this will tell us a lot about its future direction, and the impact on Android as a whole could be significant. Some semi-informed speculation from earlier in the year:
To conquer the desktop (and, let's be honest, realistically take on the iPad) Andromeda would need to decisively fix Android's built-in update problem once and for all. Nobody's going to buy a laptop that sits on an old OS version for up to a year at a time. Or one that's only guaranteed updates for two years after launch. If Android (through Andromeda) is to play with the big boys in the desktop world, there is simply no way the current Android update model can continue.
Having a desktop-capable OS living in a phone also presents the possibility of a Microsoft Continuum-like feature in future Android/Andromeda phones — an exciting prospect for a number of obvious reasons. (Microsoft had that feature working pretty well on hardware far less powerful than phones will be when Andromeda is ready.)
3. Smartwatches will continue to be weird
Nobody's making any money on smartwatches, nor can anyone really agree on what they're supposed to do. On one hand you have Samsung going all-out with crazy high-tech functionality most people will probably forget about or ignore in the Gear S3. On the other you have the Apple Watch basically existing as a more fashionable Fitbit. I wish I could tell you where Android Wear is supposed to fit in among that ill-defined mess; with just one developer preview to go before it's final, Google is still making major design changes to the still unreleased Wear 2.0.
We still don't know where Android Wear will fit in the unprofitable mess that is the smartwatch market.
We'll surely see the two rumored Google-branded smartwatches early in 2017. And AC understands that despite Motorola getting out of the smartwatch game (for now), we'll see at least two other Android Wear watches arrive from companies not beginning with G, early in the new year.
4. Europe will be about Samsung versus Huawei
HTC is on the ropes, with only two major UK networks picking up the HTC 10. LG's G5 flopped so badly that Euro carriers balked at picking up the V20. Meanwhile Huawei finally has really great phones with decent software, carrier relationships to match, and a ton of money to spend on marketing. So expect the Chinese firm to establish itself as the major rival to Samsung in 2017. And let's not forget how far ahead of the pack the Galaxy Note 7 was in terms of design, display and features before it started, well, exploding. The Korean giant will be back with a vengeance in 2017.
Google's Pixel phone range — probably including two new Pixel phones later in the year — will remain an important, growing niche.
Huawei is still irrelevant in the U.S., and without a carrier partner for phones like the Mate 9, that won't be changing anytime soon. The nature of that market will make it difficult for anyone to come anywhere near challenging Samsung for the Android crown. In the long term, Google itself stands the best chance.
5. War on Bezels
Expect to become bored to tears by constant screen-to-body ratio boasts in 2017. With Apple rumored to finally slash the iPhone's bulbous bezels, and wacky phones like Xiaomi's China-only Mi Mix drumming up online hype, not to mention rumors of a bezelless Galaxy S8, 2017 will be the year the industry declares all-out war on space around the screen.
Tiny bezels? Take my money!
Giant glass chin below the display? Go to jail!
It'll be part of an effort on the part of the major manufacturers to make phones exciting again, and just as a curved screen seemed futuristic in 2015, 2017's trailblazers will have screens that extend right out to the very edge of their chassis. (The same could apply to other emerging technologies like foldable phones.)
6. Google's hardware division will grow far beyond Pixel
We've already heard rumors of a Google laptop running 'Andromeda' landing sometime in the third quarter. And we've got those rumored smartwatches as well. Google's due a tablet at some point, too — which, again, might have something to do with the rumored Andromeda OS. Pixel will remain the centerpiece of the Google hardware family, but between Daydream, Chromecast, Wifi, Google Home and other endeavors, Google's hardware division will have grown to a reasonable size by the end of the coming year.
And we're certain to have some more surprises from Mountain View along the way.
7. AI in (almost) everything
Google fired the starting pistol with Assistant on the Pixel phones, and Samsung is rumored to follow up with its own AI assistant in the Galaxy S8. Apple is sure to respond with a smarter Siri on its redesigned iPhones later in 2017. For their part, Android device makers have three unenviable options:
1.Play ball with Google and get Assistant up and running on new flagship devices.
2.Do your own thing, like Samsung.
3.Skip the AI party this year.
HTC and Sony are likely candidates for option 1 — both are already working closely with Google on their UX. (Huawei also hinted at an Assistant partnership in an interview earlier this year.) LG is big enough to try option 2, and it has an ecosystem of TVs and other smart devices that could share the same AI interface. Others will likely pass, particularly as the Google Assistant experience on phones hasn't been particularly compelling.
Elsewhere, look for increasingly dubious claims that new features "are AI" or "have AI elements" as artificial intelligence becomes one of the year's tech buzzwords.
Other odds and ends on a working weekend:
I get it. You want to play Mario. But disabling security settings and downloading dodgy APKs remains, as ever, a bad idea.
I've been using a Gear S2 over the past few weeks, and it's still a great little watch, as Andrew says here. (Little being the most important distinction compared to the Gear S3 series, which are practically visible from space.)
That Honor Magic is cool and all, but most of the features which actually make it "Magic" have been available in Google Now for years. (That and it's China-only, so, y'know.)
No, Cee-Lo Green wasn't injured by an exploding Galaxy Note 7.
But on a related note, if you're one of the Note 7 holdouts talking about how to avoid device-bricking OTAs, STAHP. What didn't happen to Cee-Lo could happen to you.
And with that, so long 2016. It's been weird.