Since the advent of the first modern smartphone--arguably the original Apple iPhone in 2007--the power of these mobile computing devices that also happen to make phone calls has advanced by leaps and bounds.
Weak processors have given way to dual-core powerhouses. Smartphone cameras are now so capable, the best of them make owning a point-and-shoot camera redundant. And display resolutions exceed the limits of the human eye's ability to distinguish separate pixels.
But that doesn't mean smartphones have no room left for innovation in 2012. Here's a look at what phone makers might pack into next year's models.
Quad-Core Processors Arrive
Though 2011 was the year of dual-core, 2012 will bring quad-core processors to smartphones. Nvidia's Tegra 3 processor is said to be five times faster than the dual-core Tegra 2, which debuted this year. Qualcomm, meanwhile, is planning to launch quad-core Snapdragon CPUs with speeds up to 2.5GHz, and with quad-core Adreno graphics processors for gaming.
Near-Field Communication Takes Off
Near-field communication is the technology that lets you wave a phone in front of a payment kiosk in place of a credit card. To make that happen, phone makers and wireless carriers have to put NFC capabilities in their smartphones, credit card companies need to handle the transactions, and retailers must install kiosks that accept the payments. Next year, everything may finally fall into place.
Google Wallet got a head start on the pay-by-phone front this year, but it will have lots of competition in 2012. Wireless carriers have banded together on their own NFC payment plan, called Isis, and Apple is rumored to be putting NFC in future iPhones. Research in Motion has included NFC capabilities in its BlackBerry Bold 9900. Don't expect NFC to kill the credit card next year, but do expect plenty of retailers to accept NFC payments by year's end.
Displays With 720-Pixel HD Resolution Become Standard
The Samsung Galaxy Nexus and the HTC Rezound are among the first smartphones to boast 720p (1280-by-720-pixel) displays. Next year, 720p resolution will become the standard for high-end smartphones, and handset makers may even figure out how to fit those pixels into even smaller screens than the 4.3-inch display in the Rezound. The result should be beautiful smartphone screens whose individual pixels are impossible to tell apart.
LTE Technology Everywhere
This year was an experimental one for 4G LTE, which offers dramatic speed increases over 3G networks. Although Verizon was early with the technology, its first LTE phones--the HTC ThunderBolt and the Samsung Droid Charge--had inferior tech specs, and even newer handsets tend to drain their battery when LTE is switched on. AT&T is just getting out of the gate now, and Sprint is starting its LTE rollout in early 2012, so at some point next year 4G LTE will become standard among high-end smartphones. Let's hope that phone makers and wireless carriers can figure out how to stop the battery drain by then.
Voice Control Moves In
Following the launch of Siri in Apple's iPhone 4S, Google and Microsoft are no doubt scrambling to bring more voice controls to their respective smartphone platforms. As for Siri, there's a slight chance that Apple will open up the virtual personal assistant to third-party apps in 2012; more likely, however, the company will expand Siri's functionality in some fashion before the year is over.
Better Phones Cost Less
As cutting-edge phone tech improves, so too does the average stuff. With Apple's iPhone 3GS sticking around for another year for free with a two-year contract, we'll probably see some strong competition in the $0-to-$50 range--not just with Android, but with Windows Phones, as well. (Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer has said that "the cheapest phones will be Android, and we are going to have to look at bringing the cost of our handsets down.")
The Contract-Free Battle Intensifies
Even though the fight for smartphone superiority mainly involves the major wireless carriers, a separate battle is brewing on the contract-free front. Sprint's Virgin Mobile brand and T-Mobile's no-contract plan through Walmart are the main combatants, offering decent Android smartphones for $35 per month and $30 per month, respectively. Expect strong follow-ups to Virgin's Motorola Triumph and T-Mobile's Samsung Exhibit II 4G as prepaid carriers go to war.
Augmented Reality Arrives
Augmented reality is another feature we've seen on a few apps here and there, but Ramon T. Lamas of IDC predicts that AR will become a standard, everyday feature in the phones of tomorrow, as opposed to being limited to one-off apps such as Google Goggles or the Layar browser.
We've already encountered a bit of that approach in the form of Bing's visual search, which is built right into the Windows Phone 7 platform. If you're traveling or just exploring your own neighborhood, for instance, you can point your phone at your surroundings, and the app will show an overlay indicating historic landmarks nearby.
No Big Battery Breakthroughs
While smartphones will continue to improve noticeably in processor power, screen quality, and data speeds, their battery life is likely to see only minor improvements. The major technological breakthroughs that could keep users from worrying about getting through the day are still in the laboratory, so the best hope for better battery life lies in optimization. Nvidia's Tegra 3 processors, for instance, have a hidden fifth core that draws a small amount of battery life for basic tasks, and the Motorola Droid Razr can turn off battery-intensive functions automatically to conserve power. For now, however, the true 24-hour battery is still a dream.
PCWorld associate editor Ginny Mies contributed to this article.