The rise of the smartphone: Mobile technology in the 2010s
As we draw to the end of not just the year but also the decade, looking back over the development of mobile tech is a fascinating exercise – our smartphones have acted as barometers of change in technology, people, and the world we live in, and here's how far we have come.
Before we mention specific handsets from each year, it's worth looking at the overall trends. Phones have gotten bigger, obviously, and more powerful – that goes without saying. Bezels have shrunk and shrunk before being eliminated completely, and physical buttons have all but vanished from the front of devices.
Over the last 10 years, phone makers have decided to release more phones on each occasion – Apple and Samsung put out three each time – while Google has switched from making Nexus phones in partnership with other companies, to making Pixel phones all on its own.
Camera quality has come on leaps and bounds, as more lenses have been added to rear cameras and optics have improved. Features like optical image stabilization, optical zoom and superb low light performance are standard for 2019, even though they would've been almost unthinkable in 2010.
What we've also seen over the last decade is a move in what we expect from smartphones. Today, budget phones are mostly excellent and good enough for a lot of people, and that wasn't the case back in 2010. The best phones of 2019 have more than enough power for modern-day phone tasks, and as Android and iOS have gradually matured to add every feature we could ever dream of, it means we're not upgrading as often as we used to.
As the years have rolled by, Apple, Samsung and Google have grown to dominate the scene, which isn't as diverse as it once was. However, the recent push by Chinese companies like OnePlus, Huawei and Xiaomi into western markets promises to maintain diversity in terms of manufacturers.
The best phones of 2010 included the the HTC Droid Incredible, the T-Mobile G2, the BlackBerry Torch (complete with slide-out keyboard), and the Apple iPhone 4. Google started making its own phones with the Nexus One, which came with a 3.7-inch display, 512 MB of RAM, and 512 MB of on-board storage – all very competitive specs for 2010.
That screen seems tiny now, but it was actually more expansive than the 3.5-inch display on the iPhone 4. One of the big new features on Apple's 2010 handset was a front-facing camera, which gives you some idea of where phones were at this time. As for the app scene, this was also the year that a little app called Instagram made its debut on iOS.
By 2011, the big names were getting into their annual product release stride. Google launched the Galaxy Nexus, Apple launched the iPhone 4S, and Samsung launched both the Galaxy S II and the first Galaxy Note – the Note came with a 5.3-inch screen that seemed gigantic at the time (the iPhone 4S once again stuck with a 3.5-inch screen).
The Note 10 Plus of 2019 carries a 6.8-inch display, so you can see how far we've come since the early 2010s. Android hit its version 4.0 milestone in 2011, codenamed Ice Cream Sandwich, which came with such exotic features as rudimentary face unlock capabilities, and the ability to control playback in audio apps from controls on the lock screen.
This was the year we saw debuts for the Nokia Lumia 900 and 920 (built to showcase the best of Windows Phone 7.5), the HTC One X and One X+ (with quad-core processors, no less), and the Sony Xperia S (carrying a hefty 1 GB of RAM, 32 GB of internal storage, and a 4.3-inch display). The pace of progress in the mobile phone market was accelerating.
Google and LG built the 4.7-inch Nexus 4 together – with an 8 MP rear camera and wireless charging, a novelty for 2012 phones. Apple's iPhone 5 upped the size of the iPhone display for the first time, to 4 inches, and added LTE support; at the same time, iOS 6 dropped, bringing with it a new Apple Maps app which didn't have the smoothest of launches.
Six years is a long time in phones, and back in 2013 we saw the arrival of the Sony Xperia Z1 (carrying a 20.1 MP rear camera and a 5-inch screen), the Galaxy S4 (13 MP camera, 5-inch screen), and the LG G2 (13 MP camera, 5.2-inch screen). The Nexus line peaked with the Nexus 5, a stylish 4.95-inch handset that was also compellingly affordable too.
Apple surprised us all by launching two iPhones in the same year: the iPhone 5C was cheaper and more colorful, while the iPhone 5S added some more premium materials and the first 64-bit processor to sit inside an iPhone. By 2015, all iOS apps had to upgrade to the more powerful 64-bit technology in order for them to be accepted into the App Store.
In 2014, the Galaxy Note became the Galaxy Note Edge, with a curved display; LG had one of its biggest mobile hits with the LG G3 (offering a 2,560 x 1,440 pixel, 5.5-inch screen, which was stunning for the time); and HTC also had a strong year with the HTC One M8. LG and HTC have struggled to keep up with Samsung since, but this was their year at the top.
The Google Nexus 6 arrived with a sizeable 5.96-inch display and Android 5.0 Lollipop – a mobile OS that introduced the modern Material Design look. Apple, meanwhile, pushed the iPhone display sizes to 4.7 inches and 5.5 inches with the iPhone 6 and the iPhone 6 Plus, while also rolling out iOS 8 – marking the introduction of the Apple Health app.
Samsung had a hit on its hands in 2015 with the Galaxy S6 – though the lack of a removable battery and a microSD card slot alienated some users – while Apple had a quieter year in terms of upgrades with the iPhone 6S and iPhone 6S Plus. 3D Touch was one of the new iPhone features, something that has now been ditched by Apple.
Google got into the two-phones-per-year game with the smaller, cheaper LG-made Nexus 5X, and the larger, more expensive Huawei-made Nexus 6P, the first Google phones to drop microUSB in favor of USB-C. OnePlus, meanwhile, was getting into its stride with the 5.5-inch OnePlus 2, boasting up to 4 GB of RAM and up to 64 GB of internal storage.
Any discussion of mobile tech in 2016 has to include a mention of the Galaxy Note 7, which had a nasty habit of catching on fire – and Samsung is still dealing with the repercussions today. It was the first Note device to have a USB-C port instead of a microUSB one, and the last Note device to have a physical home button underneath its (5.7-inch) screen.
Google Assistant replaced Google Now on Android, and the Pixel phones replaced the Nexus phones – showing Google wanted full control over the hardware and the software experience. The iPhone 7 and iPhone 7 Plus were incremental updates, but Apple also pushed out the iPhone SE, a nod to iPhones past with its 4-inch display and retro looks.
2017 was the year of the iPhone X, and that means it was also the year of the notch, a design choice that would dominate the smartphone scene for the next two years. Add in the improved visuals, notification management and App Store design in iOS 11, and this was arguably the biggest iPhone upgrade since the original launched back in 2007.
Elsewhere phones such as the Pixel 2 and Galaxy S8 combined stylish looks with a lot of power, and 2017 really did mark the start of the modern, ultra-thin-bezel, gesture control age of the smartphone. Phones from this year don't appear as dated as phones from 2016 do, and indeed you may well still be happily using a phone you got in 2017.
As far as mobile technology goes, 2018 was mostly more of the same: incremental updates were the norm, although in-display fingerprint sensors started to see widespread adoption, and Google's Night Sight technology helped to redefine what we could expect from night time photography (even if the Pixel 3 stuck with a single-lens rear camera).
The iPhone XS didn't move the needle too far from what the iPhone X offered, though the iPhone XR did bring back the spirit of the iPhone 5C with its lower price and variety of color options (this idea of a more affordable flagship model would get picked up by Samsung, Google and OnePlus in 2019) – adding a third handset was a smart move by Apple.
This year it feels as though there's some innovation and movement in the smartphone market again – 5G tech has just started to become available, while phones like the Samsung Galaxy Fold and the Huawei Mate X have prepared us for a future of foldable phones (even if the technology isn't quite ready for widespread adoption just yet).
Apple caught up in the photography department with its iPhone 11 series, especially in low light shots, while Google continued to push the AI credentials of its software with the Pixel 4 phones. From Samsung to OnePlus to the revamped Nokia brand, the future looks brighter than ever for smartphones – and we can't wait to see what 2020 has in store.