The world in your pocket: How smartphones will get smarter in 2022

The world in your pocket: How smartphones will get smarter in 2022

This story is part of The Year Ahead, CNET's look at how the world will continue to evolve starting in 2022 and beyond.

New phones for 2022 are already debuting left and right, and it's barely been two weeks. During CES 2022, Samsung announced the Galaxy S21 FE, the follow-up to its popular 2020 phone the Galaxy S20 FE. OnePlus teased us all with a slow trickle of details about the new features and CPU in the OnePlus 10 Pro. Sony finally brought the photography-focused Xperia 5 III to the US.

These new phones debut after a year where outstanding devices like the Galaxy S21 Ultra, the Galaxy Z Flip 3, the Asus ROG Phone 5 and the iPhone 13 series refined the rough spots of their predecessors, often adding more 5G support, higher refresh rate screens or improving their cameras with new sensors, modes and software.

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OnePlus and Google had a different strategy in 2021, releasing phones that charted new directions beyond simple refinements. OnePlus partnered with camera-maker Hasselblad to revamp the photographic chops on its phones starting with the OnePlus 9 Pro. Google revealed a full redesign with the Pixel 6 and Pixel 6 Pro, complete with Google's first ever chip.

Yet in looking ahead to phones in 2022, instead of focusing on predictable roadmaps like Google's eventual Android 13 and iPhone 14 rumors, I want to know how smartphones could actually get smarter in 2022. How will the device in our pocket be more helpful, powerful and thoughtful to use?

For guidance, I reached out to Google, OnePlus, Motorola and Asus to get their thoughts on phones in the coming year. Throughout my talks three themes emerged: AI, accessibility and niche devices.

Machine learning and AI will even the field

Whether it runs Android or iOS, your phone uses machine learning and artificial intelligence to improve its capabilities and your experience using it. A great example is Night mode on your phone's camera. Basically when the lighting of a scene is too dark, Night mode can be used to take a brighter photo. Your phone assembles multiple images taken at different exposures into a single photo that has a brighter exposure, sharper details and less image noise. After all of that processing, AI balances the colors. Such an act happens in a matter of moments and seconds and would be nearly impossible to execute without AI and ML.

In 2022, AI and ML will be used in less obvious ways like to be more protective about your privacy. Charmaine D'SIlva, a group product manager for Android, says that machine learning will be at the core of Android going forward. She points to Private Compute Core in Android 12 which helps Google use ML to innovate while maintaining standards for privacy and security.

"Private Compute Core helps us power features like Smart Reply, Now Playing and Live Caption in a way that keeps the information stored on your device private," D'Silva says. "For instance, until you tap a Smart Reply, the OS keeps your reply hidden from both your keyboard and the app you're typing into."

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Machine learning will also make phones more powerful by making them more intelligent. Affordable phones aren't equipped with the fastest processor or most RAM. ML will enable them to have access to many of the same advanced features that were traditionally only available to expensive phones that used the brute force processing power provided by expensive high-end chips. Google is using ML to give phones running Android Go edition, which often cost under $50, similar capabilities as a full-fledged Android 12 device.

"For example the Android Go edition camera supports HDR imaging and devices can also translate on the fly," says Nosh Minwalla, director of software engineering at Android. "This is the result of optimizing the ML libraries to work with very limited resources and is a trend that will continue in the future, making Android Go edition phones more intelligent."

Artificial intelligence will also improve the battery health on our phones. Instead of relying on people to have good charging habits or a phone-maker to put a ridiculously large battery in a phone, AI can be used to maintain good battery health.

The world in your pocket: How smartphones will get smarter in 2022

Oliver Zhang, head of product at OnePlus, says that phone features like battery life will be designed for more focused use-case scenarios.

"With sensors and user behavior data, smartphone companies have a better understanding of users and deliver customized and smarter services," says Zhang. "AI algorithms for charging systems can adjust the most suitable modes based on user habits for longer battery life."

Accessibility will be more widespread

According to the World Health Organization more than 1 billion people globally have a disability. That's 15% of the world's population. Currently, we see commitments from Apple and Google to make their operating systems more accessible to people no matter their disability.

"Over the last two years we focused on developing features like: Live Transcribe built for people who are deaf and hard-of-hearing; Live Caption on Chrome and Android, enable people to watch video and listen to audio content from across the web using AI; a new improved Talkback (Android's screen reader) which enables people who are blind or low-vision to navigate their phones," says Angana Ghosh, the product lead for Android Accessibility.

Ghosh says that in order for phones and software to be more accessible that work should start at the earliest stages of product design.

And improvements to accessibility can come in many forms. Phones will be able to more accurately translate and auto-predict languages. Phones and software will be designed to be more inclusive representing a diverse set of people with different languages, disabilities, genders and racial background.

We saw some of that in 2021, when Google decided to confront the bias its camera has toward people with darker complexions. For the Pixel 6 and Pixel 6 Pro, Google worked with numerous directors, photographers and cinematographers, known for their beautiful depictions of communities of color to help the engineers behind the cameras and software improve the ways photos of people with darker complexions are captured and presented.

Niche phones with targeted appeal will thrive

Over recent years, we've seen phone-makers step away from solely making devices with a broad appeal. Instead there's an increased focus on making phones for specific users and groups. Gaming phones are aimed at gamers. Sony revamped its Xperia line to appeal to photographers, filmmakers and creative types with high-end hardware and software that make the process of taking a photo or recording a video as rich as possible. Microsoft released the Surface Duo, which has a dual screen to enable better productivity. Samsung, Motorola and Huawei continue to make strides in foldable phones and software.

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None of these areas have mass appeal, at least not now. But all are ways to give people what they want from a phone, instead of trying to make a phone for everyone. Gaming phones were one of the first niche devices. The first ones were built to cater to gamers and no one else.

"For gamers, smartphones can optimize resource allocation based on users' gaming habits to bring comprehensive experience upgrades across all parameters of gaming," Zhang says.

One of the more obvious examples of phones with niche appeal are the ever-growing number of foldable phones. While some think foldables had their moment, the truth is we are still in the early days of making phones that reliably fold in half and software that takes advantage of that.

It felt like 2021 was supposed to be the year of foldables but that the pandemic and increased pressure on the global supply chain diminished that. On the MotoTalks podcast I talked with Motorola's Product General Manager Jeff Snow and Doug Michau, executive director of North America business development for Motorola, about the promise of foldable phones.

"Motorola, obviously, we knew it wouldn't sell millions and millions, but we still wanted to release the Razr device, because it goes after that niche market, that consumers that really want to see very pocketable technology," Snow says.

Technology designed for foldable phones will likely work its way into our everyday devices. We already see that with gaming phones which were the first phones to include a high refresh rate display. Now nearly every phone at nearly every price point has a high refresh rate screen.

Software is also becoming more niche. On one end of things, we'll see AI helping improve our battery life or controlling the refresh rate of our screens. On the opposite side of things, there are users who want to be able to control all of those things. Asus, who makes the ROG line of gaming phones, has a software suite called Armoury Crate that lets its users take as much control as they want.

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"You have these users, their niche is 'just let me do what I want to do.' No smarts, that's the best type of smarts, right?" says Chih-Hao Kung, a territory marketing manager for Asus' smartphone division. "That's where Armoury Crate comes in. If you want the smarts, we will do dynamic tuning for you. You don't have to do anything, just run it. But if you want to change everything, you can change everything."

Such advanced and customizable controls aren't for most people. But for those who want them, there are phones that will give you that control. And in 2022, we're likely to see niche phones allow deeper customization for their audiences.

Your phone is your life

Smartphones have been around since the late '90s, though the basic design we use today is based largely on the 2007 release of the iPhone. That was 15 years ago. As our phones get smarter in 2022, it's worth recognizing that they are also becoming the center of our "smart" universe. Smart homes and car tech are reliant on phones. And that won't be going away anytime soon. If anything, trying to get away from your phone in 2022 will be even harder than it was before.

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