Smartphones have come a long way in the last decade. While the original iPhone launched in 2007, followed by the first wave of Android phones over the next year or two, those early smartphones weren’t really all that smart. The most popular phone in the US in 2010 was the Apple iPhone 3G S which had a 3.5-inch screen, a 3-megapixel camera, and a new voice control feature for calls and music. Later that same year Apple launched the iPhone 4, Microsoft unveiled Windows Phone 7, RIM (Research In Motion) — the company originally behind BlackBerry — began to fade as a force, and Samsung, Motorola, and HTC were beginning to hit their stride with popular Android phones like the Samsung Galaxy S and the HTC Evo 4G.
While these smartphones were exciting at the time, their abilities were limited by modern standards. Our smartphones have evolved and integrated ever more closely with the increasing amount of tech that surrounds us. The yearly increments often fail to wow us, but look back over the last ten years and you can see the leap our smartphones have taken. Here are ten things your smartphone can do now, that it couldn’t do ten years ago.
Pay for stuff
You don’t need to carry cash or even a wallet or purse if you have your phone with you nowadays. Mobile payments are booming and you can use services like Apple Pay, Google Pay, and Samsung Pay to make contactless payments for coffee, to buy tickets at the cinema, or to purchase your groceries. We’ve been able to use services like PayPal to buy stuff online for a lot longer, but it’s only relatively recently that large swathes of the population have started trusting their phones enough to do the bulk of their online shopping on them. From holiday gifts to cat food, more and more of us are making purchases on our phones. In stores mobile payments have been slow to hit the mainstream, but thanks to improvements in security with biometrics making purchases quick and easy, the development of NFC technology, and the presence of secure chips, people are starting to get more confident and comfortable using phones to pay.
Projects to develop mobile translation date back to the turn of the century, but it’s only in recent years that real-time language translation has become widely available on your phone. Google Translate was first released as an Android app in 2010, but the early version was fairly basic. Support for more languages has been added gradually and you can now use your phone to translate text or speech in real-time. You can even hold your camera up to a menu or a sign and have it translated on screen before your very eyes. The speed and quality of the translations you can get now is pretty astounding and there are several services and devices, like earbuds reminiscent of the Babelfish from Hitchiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, capable of working like personal translators. Having this capability on your phone can prove incredibly useful at times.
Take a bokeh picture
If you wanted a beautiful portrait shot with your subject in perfect focus and a blurred background ten years ago, then you had to use a DSLR camera. Today, you can whip almost any phone out of your pocket and snap a photo with that coveted bokeh effect. The combination of multiple camera lenses and smarter processing has enabled a brave new dawn for smartphone photography. The new heights we’ve reached aren’t limited to background blur, you can zoom in from afar without losing detail on many phones now, you can take photos at night or in bad light, and you can edit them right there on your phone with a range of post processing effects. The fight to turn out the best smartphone camera has been fierce in recent years and the phone buying public has benefited. It has never been so easy to preserve our precious memories.
Summon an Uber
Uber launched in San Francisco in 2011 as a black luxury car hire app, but it soon evolved into something much bigger. The convenience of being able to order a ride on your phone without having to make a call, see in advance how much it will cost, and pay from your phone has proven irresistible. Prices dropped when Uber started taking on independent contractors using their own cars. The company now has 110 million users worldwide and there are a number of alternative services that offer more or less the same thing. The taxi industry has slowly tried to catch up, but the convenience of Uber’s app is still a major selling point, with a map showing your driver’s location and a built in rating and tipping system, taking a lot of the pain out of the ride hailing process. There has been plenty of controversy about Uber, but the experience of grabbing an Uber from your phone after spilling out of a late night club, compared to phoning a taxi firm or trying to hail a cab, is enough to explain its success.
The basic science behind wireless charging goes back more than a century when Nikola Tesla demonstrated it, but it wasn’t really until 2012 that Qi wireless charging popped up in phones with the Nokia Lumia 920 and the Samsung Galaxy S3. It was slow at first and you had to get your phone onto the sweet spot to make sure it charged properly, but manufacturers like Samsung persisted. The tech has slowly but surely improved, and when competing standard Powermat joined the Wireless Power Consortium, the question of competing technologies was quashed. Apple’s adoption of Qi wireless charging in 2017 cemented its place as an expected smartphone feature. You can now charge your phone wirelessly in the time it took to charge from the wall a decade ago. The next frontier may be wireless charging over distance, but in the meantime the close up wireless charging we’re used to will just keep getting better.
Understand complex spoken commands
While voice commands were not unheard of ten years ago, the kind of things you can verbally ask your phone to do today have advanced enormously and it can talk back to you in a much more natural way. Beyond basics like setting reminders and alarms, or sending messages via text or email, you can send money to people, jump directly into a Twitter search, or ask what your commute will be like. Google Assistant and Siri are capable of turning on the flashlight on your phone, calling your Mom, or telling you how old Idris Elba is. An understanding of context is the latest improvement for Google’s A.I. helper, so you can ask about something and then do a follow up question without having to explain what you’re talking about again. The complexity and range of voice commands that work with your phone has advanced tremendously in the last decade.
Control your smart home
The list of smart home technology that you can control through your smartphone is long and growing. You can switch lights on or off or change their color, set your robot vacuum to work or get an alert that’s it’s stuck under the bed, change the temperature in your house, unlock the front door, feed the dog, turn on the TV, play music through the speakers in whatever room you want, the possibilities go on and on. If you’ve bought into smart home tech, then there’s a high chance your smartphone serves as the central hub or remote control to tie it all together. Having this kind of power at your fingertips a decade ago was a dream, but you can now do it all through the touchscreen or even hands-free using the voice assistant on your phone. As smart home tech becomes more and more affordable and connectivity improves, this will become even more commonplace.
If you went back in time ten years to tell someone about all the things that Google Assistant can do today perhaps the most futuristic sounding and surprising would be the ability to make reservations. You can verbally tell Google Assistant to book you a table somewhere and it will ask you the date and time and then make the booking for you. If there’s no online booking service, it will even call the restaurant for you. It’s a shame that it’s not yet available everywhere, but this is the kind of service you want from a virtual assistant. It can also purchase move tickets for the cinema and it will be able to handle things like doctor’s appointments, hairdresser bookings, and more before long.
Play a demanding game
Entering an online firefight with friends or strangers and racking up a pile of bullet-riddled enemy corpses on your phone would have been impossible ten years ago. First-person shooters like Call of Duty: Mobile are playable now because processing power has blossomed, screens are bigger than ever, and our network connections are getting faster and faster. While there are still plenty of simple options in our picks of the best Android games or the best iPhone games, there are also several graphically demanding titles that take advantage of the evolving hardware in our smartphones. We’re not just talking about shooters, there are realistic racing challenges, complex strategy titles, and ported console games. The quality of mobile gaming now, compared to ten years ago, is astounding. There’s a whole new category of gaming phones helping to push things even further, and Apple Arcade is a shining example of how good mobile gaming can be with a subscription model free of the in-app purchases and adverts that are usually pushed to compensate for free downloads.
Stream 4K video
While the HTC Evo 4G came out in 2010, it didn’t really have 4G connectivity, it was just faster 3G technology. It was capable of speeds of up to 10 Mbps, but more usually you’d get 3 Mbps or maybe 6 Mbps if you were lucky. Most people had much slower phones and connections back then. You need a minimum of 5 Mbps to stream high definition video and you want 25 Mbps to stream 4K video. Average 4G download speeds in the U.S. are now above 20 Mbps, so you can stream 4K video, download big games relatively quickly, update app data instantly, and make high quality video calls. It’s not just cellular network speed that has improved, the tech inside today’s smartphones also allows for faster Wi-Fi.
We tend to take our phones for granted, but for many of us they’re the devices we interact with most on a daily basis. When you stop to think about their capabilities, it’s impressive just how much they’ve improved in the last decade.