The COVID-19 pandemic is impacting markets in every segment of the economy, and smartphones are no exception. The smartphone industry has seen production disruptions as well as substantial changes in usage patterns, as social isolation impacts how much consumers use their phones and what they use them for. The influence goes both ways, however, and smartphones could help identify coronavirus exposure risk, test for the virus, and possibly even find treatments for it.
The global smartphone market has the potential to grow by over 64 million units between 2020 and 2024. APAC led the market in 2019 and will continue to do so over the next several years with its high population, rising disposable income, and growing telecommunications infrastructure. However, the industry faces disruption in the short term from both the supply chain and consumer demand. Many smartphone manufacturers have facilities in China and rely on the country to supply components, and have therefore faced delays due to the coronavirus pandemic. In addition, smartphone demand is decreasing as people save money for essentials, or purchase computers and tablets in order to work and study from home. The smartphone industry should stabilize in the long term as the world adjusts to and recovers from COVID-19, but at the moment it faces new challenges on multiple fronts.
5G faces setbacks
Some experts are predicting that the coronavirus pandemic will have a serious impact on the growth of 5G devices, which were beginning to gain traction in the global market. Delays in manufacturing and decreased demand will set back the development of affordable 5G phones, which are necessary to encourage large-scale adoption of the technology. As demand for all smartphones decreases, 5G devices will have difficulty finding a foothold.
Huawei introduces new phones during pandemic
Despite the setbacks and uncertainty, Huawei launched a new line of flagship smartphones last month. The P40 handsets don’t include Google services such as Youtube, Google Assistant, and the Play Store due to a US trade ban, which will limit their popularity outside of China. However, Huawei may be better able to deal with coronavirus fallout than its competitors, as it had already been concentrating on the Chinese market before the pandemic and was prepared to face a challenging year. Companies such as Sony an LG may face more of an adjustment period in the global smartphone industry.
Consumers change how they use their phones
Smartphone usage has changed substantially in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic, with consumers around the world spending most of their time at home. Video calling has increased as users try to keep in touch with friends, family, and coworkers; and mobile gaming and video watching have risen as people look for ways to keep themselves occupied. Mobile commerce has fallen since users typically have easy access to computers on which to shop, and many are saving their money for essential purchases.
Consumers are also using grocery and takeout apps in much greater numbers due to social distancing and quarantine requirements. The pandemic has caused many people to adopt these apps for the first time, and some of them will continue using them once things return to normal. The same is true for contactless payment apps such as Apple Pay and Android Pay – usage has increased dramatically as consumers look for the safest way to make purchases, and many people will find it convenient to keep these apps once the pandemic has passed.
Smartphone industry and governments work together on contact-tracing
The smartphone industry could also be key to treating and reducing the spread of COVID-19. Many governments and researchers are investigating ways to use people’s phones to determine whether they could have been exposed to the virus and alert them to isolate and get tested if possible. There are, however, significant concerns around privacy when it comes to an app that tracks and reports on users’ locations, and these concerns will need to be addressed in order to get both smartphone manufacturers and consumers on board.
Apple and Google are both strong proponents of decentralized contact-tracing apps, which protect users’ privacy by keeping as much data as possible on users’ phones rather than in a government-controlled server. Apps using this model have the added advantage of using less battery power as well. Many countries are investigating this decentralized approach but some, such as England, favor a centralized model that will provide them with more insight into COVID-19’s spread. Those that opt for a centralized model will have less support from Apple and Google and face challenges that will likely make their apps less appealing to users. Creating a contact-tracing app that the public has confidence in and can run smoothly on as many phones as possible is key to success, as the app will be most effective with a high adoption rate.
Suggested reading: Convenience vs Data Privacy: How Risky are Smart TVs?
Researchers develop smartphone-based COVID-19 test
Meanwhile, scientists are working on another way for smartphones to help fight the coronavirus. Pharmaceutical company Sanofi and Silicon Valley startup Luminostics are developing a test for the virus that can be used with any brand of smartphone. It includes an add-on that plugs into the phone and an app that performs the test and reports the results. The test device attaches to the phone’s camera and flash and contains chemicals that glow in the dark when the virus is present. The goal is for the test to be available by the end of the year.
App uses smartphone computing power to search for coronavirus treatments
Smartphones have a great deal of computing power that goes unused while their owners sleep. The DreamLab app takes advantage of this to create a network of smartphones that can process billions of calculations during this downtime, researching treatments that could help fight diseases such as cancer. The Corona-AI project is using this app to analyze existing drugs and determine whether they can be used to combat COVD-19. Since these drugs are already known to be safe, they could be adopted considerably faster than new drugs developed specifically for the virus. DreamLab allows scientists to investigate combinations of molecules that would be impossible to test in lab settings, providing another path towards finding a treatment.
The global coronavirus pandemic is impacting the smartphone industry in many ways, and while it is creating challenges for manufacturers and service providers, it’s also creating new opportunities as consumers look for ways to stay occupied and keep in touch with family and friends. Smartphones could also be key to reducing infection rates and even finding a treatment for the virus. Whether keeping people connected or helping fight the crisis, smartphones will continue to play a key role in consumers’ lives during the pandemic.