Antonio Villas-Boas/Business Insider
  • Smartphones are still amazing, but the excitement surrounding them is becoming stale.
  • Upgrading to new phones often leads to a similar experience as an older phone - you're using the same old apps and a slab of glass and metal or plastic.
  • Innovations like foldable smartphones and 5G will breathe new life into smartphones.
  • Once fully developed, these innovations will deliver experiences that simply aren't possible with today's traditional smartphone slab connected to aging 4G networks.
  • For more stories go to www.BusinessInsider.co.za.

Smartphones just haven't been that interesting or exciting in the last few years.

Maybe you're feeling it, too. Upgrading to a newer, faster, sleeker model is exciting for a short while. But once you load up your apps and set it up the way you like, you realise it's basically the same experience as your old smartphone.

If you're feeling that lack of excitement, you're essentially getting used to the smartphone as it is today - a slab of glass and metal or plastic that delivers the world at your fingertips, for lack of a better cliché. Things like better cameras and super-smooth screens or Face ID can also go so far in keeping people interested.

But smartphones are on the cusp of becoming exciting again, and it's thanks to two major innovations: new, foldable designs and 5G.

Foldable smartphones are off to a rough start, but they've got our attention

Indeed, foldable smartphones are off to a very rough start because the few models we've seen recently aren't very good, quite frankly. They're incredibly fragile and expensive - it's hard to recommend that anyone buy a foldable smartphone right now.

But their failures to impress now shouldn't cloud their potential later. Over time, I won't be surprised if foldable smartphones become devices that people "could" buy, or even "should" buy. I'm optimistic that smartphone makers will continue to develop foldable smartphone technology to make them less fragile and expensive, especially if it means more sales.

The Samsung Galaxy Z Flip foldable smartphone.
Lisa Eadicicco/Business Insider
And foldable designs allow the traditional static smartphone slab to transform into something more useful, whether they fold out to turn a regular smartphone into a tablet, or fold in to become more compact when you're not using them. The latter is a throwback to the good-old flip phone, like the original Motorola Razr, and it's interesting that we're looking back to get smartphones to move forward.

Either way, foldable designs are one of the biggest innovations in smartphones to date. For their first 13 years of existence, smartphones were simple rectangles. Now, they're starting to take new shapes to deliver new functionality.

The evolution of wireless internet connection will bring features and functionality we don't even know about yet

Smartphones are nothing without a wireless data connection like 4G LTE, so any evolution that brings improvements in wireless service is incredibly important.

That evolution is 5G, and its potential is exciting. 5G promises two big improvements over 4G LTE, including faster speed and a more responsive experience with less delay, or lag.

5G has the potential to bring new apps and features that weren't possible with today's 4G.
Antonio Villas-Boas/Business Insider
It's hard to tell what those faster speeds and responsiveness will bring to smartphones right now. But a quick look at past evolutions of wireless connectivity gives an idea of the leaps that come with new wireless standards.

I owned the first 4G LTE smartphone - the HTC Thunderbolt - in 2013. It was a bad phone with an absurdly short battery life, but I streamed an entire movie from Netflix on the Thunderbolt connected to a 4G LTE network. And it was amazing (at the time).

If you stream any kind of video on your smartphone while you're connected to 4G LTE, including video calls from apps like FaceTime or Google's Duo, or if you scroll through hundreds of photos on social media apps like Facebook and Instagram, know that it's only possible because we moved on from 3G to 4G.

We wouldn't be doing half the things we do on our smartphones today if it weren't for advancing wireless standards, and who knows what kind of things we'll be doing on our smartphones with 5G.

One speculation suggests that smartphone apps could run in the cloud instead of running from the phone itself, Qualcomm president Cristiano Amon told Business Insider in December last year. In turn, a smartphone may not need much processing power, transforming the powerhouses we have today into shells with a screen and a battery. And because there's little work being done on the phone itself, battery lives could be extended from a single day to several days. And if the phone doesn't run on powerful and expensive chips, it could cost significantly less, too.

With that said, 5G's rollout has only just begun in the grand scheme of things, and for most people it's not worth going out to buy a 5G smartphone like Samsung's new Galaxy S20 just to experience 5G - you'll likely be disappointed. The fast version of 5G - often called "millimeter wave" - is only available in a few cities, and even in select parts within those cities themselves. 5G coverage still has a long way to go before it's the main network we'll be connecting to.

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