From the Editor's Desk: Phones for our new, weird reality

Google Pixel 3a XL
Google Pixel 3a XL (Image credit: Harish Jonnalagadda / Android Central)

In an article published 54 days ago, I noted in passing that COVID-19 would surely become one of the defining stories of the year. Looking back now, that statement seems equally optimistic and naive. Lockdown-enhanced clarity, of course, is 20/20. This mess and its extensive fallout is clearly going to be the only story of this year, and probably also the next.

Everyone's lives have been impacted in some way by the pandemic — whether directly by its immediate health effects, the economy being thoroughly clobbered, the travel restrictions, the curbs on usual freedoms, or the psychological effects of isolation. It's become clichéd to point out how not-normal things have become.

As much as everyone desperately wants a return to the old normal, it's becoming increasingly obvious that the new one isn't going away anytime soon. In recent days, scientists have warned of a very slow return to the pre-coronavirus norm through the course of the next year and a half. In countries like the UK, there's talk of society being opened up slowly, in stages, for some people. But it could be late 2021 before a vaccine is widely available and things can really get back to the way they were before.

Get ready for the long haul.

In the meantime, we'll be settling in for the long haul with social distancing, remote working, very little travel and a highly precarious economy. Such immense changes to the way we live and work will surely impact the technology that's developed and sold over the next year or two.

Smartphones, for most people, are their primary computer. The way they use this primary computer has changed over the past month, and is sure to change further as the pandemic unfolds.

Let's start with the obvious: $1,000 smartphones, already waning in popularity, are sure to become increasingly niche in the coming months, as higher unemployment and poor job security hit home. Same deal with the expensive multi-year 5G price plans pushed heavily by carriers over the past twelve months. Expect the necessity of a slower 5G rollout, and a housebound customer base to dampen any enthusiasm for the next-gen network tech for the foreseeable future.

Qualcomm Snapdragon 765 reference design

Source: Qualcomm (Image credit: Source: Qualcomm)

There's already been a trend, particularly in Western countries, towards customers keeping their existing phones for longer, beyond the traditional two-year contract time. Expect a thrifty population to cling even harder to older handsets and choose SIM-only 4G upgrades when the time comes. Also expect a decent proportion of the 5G phones that do sell to be powered by the emerging generation of more affordable processors like Qualcomm's 5G-equipped Snapdragon 765. That chipset was important before, and increasingly vital in the era of COVID-19.

The way we build, sell and use phones and other consumer tech will inevitably change.

If the fallout of the current pandemic lingers into 2021, we may even see the next generation of phones reconfigured to account for the long-term changes to our way of life. Big, flashy flagship phones won't go away. (After all, the specs and designs for pretty much all of 2021's flagships will already be locked in at this stage.) Instead expect to see device line-ups highlighting more practical, economical offerings.

iPhone SE

Source: iMore / Lory Gil (Image credit: Source: iMore / Lory Gil)

Affordability and display size are likely to be more important to the vast majority of people thinking about changing phones in late 2020 or early 2021. If you're working at home on Wi-Fi, largely prevented from socializing in large groups or going on vacation, do you care about a 108-megapixel camera and 5X optical zoom? Or are you more likely to pick up a cheaper Android phone on a barebones 4G plan, and put the rest towards a basic iPad to pass the time at home?

The arrival of the new iPhone SE (and soon the Google Pixel 4a) gives us two timely examples of phones that would thrive in this kind of market.

If the route out of the COVID-19 crisis is a quick one, perhaps the way we build, buy and use technology will see only minor changes. If not, don't be surprised if the gadgets of the next couple of years have to bend to our new, weird reality just as much as every other aspect of life.

Other odds and ends to wrap up another lockdown weekend:

  • If you haven't already, check out our excellent Earth Day package covering all the ways you can get your tech on without messing up the planet.
  • I'm lukewarm on the idea of a Motorola flagship in 2020 that just about meets the table stakes of the market. Motorola isn't all that exciting, coming from a company that failed to impress in that space for so long.
  • The new iPhone SE is out, looks fantastic and I'm sure Apple will sell boatloads of them. But I'm not entirely convinced that this signals this phone is the death knell of the upcoming Pixel 4a as some fear. The target audience for Pixels is miniscule by comparison, and Google has its own unique strengths like the expansive display, Pixel camera, Assistant and other first-party features. They're two very different phones.
  • Nobody who's attended the show in the past is surprised to see IFA 2020 cancelled going ahead in a new and innovative format, whatever that means. IFA, as much as any other trade show, was a mess of journalists, industry people and members of the public from all over the world crammed inside a hellish maze of a convention center. It'll be at least a year before anything close to that is possible again.
  • My lockdown guilty pleasure/thing I probably wouldn't be playing on my phone if I could go outside? Mario Kart Tour on Android. It has a lot of the usual free-to-play nonsense, but makes up for it with quick, fun easily-snackable gameplay.

That's all for this week. Stay safe and don't drink bleach.


Alex Dobie
Executive Editor

Alex was with Android Central for over a decade, producing written and video content for the site, and served as global Executive Editor from 2016 to 2022.