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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

Alex Dobie
Alex Dobie

Alex is global Executive Editor for Android Central, and is usually found in the UK. He has been blogging since before it was called that, and currently most of his time is spent leading video for AC, which involves pointing a camera at phones and speaking words at a microphone. He would just love to hear your thoughts at alex@androidcentral.com, or on the social things at @alexdobie.

12 Comments
  • So you say about people keeping phones longer, then say this "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?" You act like this is not going to end and people will be confined to their homes for years to come? Not to mention even with the quarantine, going outside is still allowed (which people would use those higher end cameras for). Honetly everyone is blowing the situation way out of proportion. More scare tactics than anything else. 
  • Sigh. When was Android introduced? 2008. When was going on then? A massive global recession that would last for 5 years (to speak nothing of two wars still going on). So if people were camping out days in line to buy the iPhone 4 when there was a 10% unemployment rate - that remained over or near 8% well into 2013 - what makes anyone think that this crisis, which everyone thinks will be mostly over with by June (states are reopening businesses already and even New York says some businesses will start opening upstate in May) - will change long term habits? I repeat: during the middle of the worst recession since the Great Depression people were buying a new flagship smartphone (as well as a new tablet in many cases) every year and sometimes multiple phones in a year. Why did it stop and people start holding on their phones longer? Two reasons. The LESSER one is that smartphone SOCs and operating systems became so good that people didn't need to update anymore. Back in 2012, a two year old flagship phone couldn't run the latest apps and its OS was missing exciting/necessary features. That isn't the case with 4 year old mid-range phones today, which are going to have quad core 64 bit processors, 32 GB of storage plus an OS that allows you to adopt SD cards as internal storage and 2-3 GB of RAM. The main reason: back then smartphones and tablets were status symbols. Hollywood celebrities would go buy - or have their handlers buy - the latest smartphone and they would take pictures of themselves with it and post it on social media. The newspapers and magazines would cover it breathlessly and their fans would go out and buy the same phone. Hollywood even released TV series and movies - like 2 Steve Jobs biopics alone - about people using smartphones and tablets.
  • Agree. Price may deter some, but more so you have devices that can easily last 3-4 years and still function well. When android first burst onto the scene that was not the case. Phones struggled to work well 1-2 years after launch back then. 
  • I strongly agree. My first android was a Samsung captivate running eclair. It was fast for it's time with the single core hummingbird. Then a year later, froyo showed up. That's when everything started to come to a crawl. Back then, updates hurt more than they helped. Same way with my iphone 3 and 3gs.
  • Your point about Hollywood is weird.
  • I believe that during this COVID-19 crisis two big seller's will be the pixel 4a & the iPhone SE. Why? The prices of course. Both have very good packages for the 💰? Sure flagships will sell but certainly they won't be breaking any records?
  • I agree with this. I bought the mid range Nokia 7.2 (we always keep a backup device) and am impressed with how well this cheap device has functioned. Prior to that I had the Pixel 3 but sold it for a device with better battery life. Through it all, my daily driver is my BlackBerry Key2. Still works well, great call quality, good size and long battery life. So I do fall in the category of someone keeping her device for a long time. I might look at the Pixel 3a or wait for the 4a. The Nokia, thought great, is huge.
  • We aren't going to be in quarantine much longer. Look at the damn data. It's science people ..
  • "That's all for this week. Stay safe and don't drink bleach." Thanks Alex! To keep things fair and balanced - Don't sexually assault any one either!
  • To be fair, that applies to both sides but still applies much more frequently to the right.
  • Holding on? I was willing to buy a Note 8 three years ago because I thought it was future proof enough. It was, and more than held up. I was only briefly tempted by the biggest S20+, but realized it doesn't do enough better. 5G? I'm in an average sized city, and it's nowhere in Canada in the big cities. We're still getting used to newish unlimited data plans here in Canada. 4G works, and the truth is that most of us access the mobile web via WiFi. I finally grew tired of the small mobile screen. I found good value in the mid grade i5 based Microsoft Surface Pro 7. Lol, I'd have had to hand out another $900 Cdn for that S20+ Ultra I briefly considered. No, COVID-19 isn't going anywhere any time soon, but I expect a slow return to normal in my life by mid May when the local oil & gas industry will have to man up skeletonized maintenance crews... I'm temporarily laid off. I don't consider the COVID-19 reaction an overreaction... A pause to assess it was necessary... But people have yet to accept COVID-19 is going to get everywhere eventually... You can not escape it... A steep COVID-19 infection curve or a flatter curve, it's the same end result, both infect the same amount of humans. Nature will determine survivors and those who have the lucky DNA will survive and pass on immunity to the next generation. It never was any better, it never will be. Only richer or poorer, sadder but not wiser, until the very last day.
  • My friend code for Mario kart Tour 8009 1433 7792. I'm waiting for the Pixel 4A and will probably choose between it and the OnePlus 7T