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Top 7 Consumer Mobile Trends for 2014

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There's a mobile content explosion taking place around us...

Simon Khalaf, CEO and President, Flurry

In 2013, Android hoovered up smartphone market share while BlackBerry sank, Facebook and Twitter became increasingly mobile-first, and Candy Crush Saga took over the mobile gaming world. So what lies ahead in 2014? Here are seven trends you can count on…

1. Nokia and Microsoft will be the third horse in the smartphone race. Android accounted for 81 percent of smartphones that shipped in the third quarter of 2013, according to research firm Strategy Analytics. That puts Google in the driving seat for 2014, although Apple's highly-engaged iOS users will ensure the two platforms continue to go toe-to-toe for innovation. But what about a third horse in this race?

Those same strategy analytics figures suggested BlackBerry's market share slipped to 1 percent of new shipments in Q3, while Microsoft's Windows Phone rose to 4.1 percent. That's small beans in the smartphone market, but a growing base, and the reason why Windows Phone is going to be a fascinating platform in 2014. Big apps like Instagram and Vine are finally launching on it, too, after concerted lobbying from Microsoft and Nokia.

Speaking of which... All things being well, Microsoft will buy Nokia's devices and services division early in 2014, and set about the task of proving that hardware + software + services can work as well for Microsoft as it has for Apple. A healthy third player in the smartphones market will help everyone: operators, app developers and consumers alike.

2. Triple-A mobile games won't be about console-quality graphics. When Apple unveiled its iPhone 5s handset (and later its iPad Air and new iPad mini tablets) it made a big deal out of their 64-bit A7 processor, with gaming one of the most obvious benefits. Expect much overuse of the phrases "console-quality" and "triple-A" in 2014, as games firms and device makers alike look to hammer home the message that mobile devices can now deliver big, beautiful, complex games to match the last generation of consoles, if not (yet) the next one.

Here's the rub: a triple-A game on a smartphone or tablet, even one with a whizzy 64-bit processor inside, might not be the same as on an Xbox 360 or PlayStation 3. The monster mobile games of 2013 in terms of revenues weren't about console-quality graphics, they were about colourful puzzling (Candy Crush Saga, Puzzle & Dragons) or neatly-drawn strategy (Clash of Clans, The Hobbit: Kingdoms of Middle-Earth) or yellow cartoon characters (The Simpsons, Despicable Me: Minion Rush). Or Angry Birds, or Minecraft, or...

There are already some spectacular-looking mobile games taking advantage of Apple's new hardware – Infinity Blade III for example – but the momentum in 2014 will likely still be with games that don't *need* this processing power to find a huge, mainstream audience of players. And it goes without saying that Minecraft aside, the dominant business model is likely to be free-to-play.

3. The Kids will flee Facebook for mobile messaging apps. 12 little words in Facebook's last quarterly earnings call with analysts thoroughly spooked Wall Street: "We did see a decrease in daily users specifically among younger teens." Cue a sharp fall in the social network's share price, as analysts and journalists alike pondered the implications of a potential teenage drain from Facebook. Which, remember, is how things started to go wrong for Friendster, Bebo and Myspace in the past.

The question for 2014 is where those young internet users will go next? The clever money's on mobile, and apps that started life as instant messaging tools, even if they've since diversified beyond that. That's one reason behind sky-high numbers for startups like Snapchat, which is rumoured to be valued at $4bn despite not yet making any revenues at all. But it's also there in apps like WhatsApp (350m active users), Line (260m registered users), WeChat (236m), KakaoTalk (100m) and even in a resurgent BBM (20m new users in its first week on iPhone and Android, taking it to 80m in total).

It's a crowded market, with a fair amount of blurriness around which apps are being actively used (as opposed to used once then discarded). And on a completely different note, the same kids are gravitating towards YouTube on their mobile devices to: to watch original shows and YouTubers larking about, listen to music and maybe to shoot and share their own videos. Understanding the mobile habits of the WhatsApp and YouTube generation will be a key task for brands and marketers in 2014.

4. Wearable gadgets will get beyond the hype to prove their worth. Tech journalists (including me) love the topic of wearable gadgets, partly because it involves new product categories to spice up the usual fare of handheld devices, and partly because we're hankering after a sci-fi future of magic watches and augmented reality goggles. Hence all the excitement around Google Glass, all the speculation about an Apple smart-watch, and our ability to say 'the quantified self' without smirking.

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There is serious stuff going on here, though, and 2014 will be a year for separating that from the hype. We're onto a new generation of fitness-tracking hardware for example with smarter sensors, smarter companion apps, and slinkier design that will take them even more into the mainstream.

Smart-watches? Apple may reveal that long-rumored iWatch, Google may take the wrappers off its own wrist-mounted device, and Samsung will be onto its second-generation Galaxy Gear device. All are likely to be working with developers on convincing reasons for people to adopt smart-watches, including those who've got out of the habit of wearing watches in the smartphone era.

And then there's Glass... Google Glass is likely to go on sale sometime in 2014, hopefully opening it out beyond the Silicon Valley elite who've been its early adopters. Then we'll know whether augmented eyewear has legs (so to speak). For these devices and smart-watches alike, a big part of their potential is their glanceability: services built around quick checks rather than protracted smartphone fumbling, bringing people back to the real world and the people around them.

5. Short-range marketing returns, but (hopefully) minus the intrusion. When I first started writing about the mobile industry professionally just over a decade ago, there was a whole class of companies banging on about short-range Bluetooth marketing, invariably citing the example of a shopping mall where individual shops would ping your phone as you walked past with promotions and vouchers. It sounded dreadful. Seemingly the shopping malls agreed, and it never happened.

In the wrong hands, the iBeacons feature in Apple's iOS 7 software could see a revival of the idea: the ability for nearby devices to pinpoint your location and push you content (or, yes, promotions and vouchers) accordingly. Retailers, sports stadia and concert venues alike are thought to be interested in the potential of iBeacons, although its lack of support for Android – 81 percent of smartphone shipments last quarter, remember – may hold it back.

Anyway, iBeacons will stand or fall on people dreaming up applications for it that genuinely benefit the people with devices in their pockets, rather than just brands and retailers. Here's hoping we're not wondering what happened to it in 10 years' time.

6. Spotify and streaming music will prove its value for artists. 2013 was a strange year for Spotify, as it grew to 6 million paying subscribers and 24 millions users overall, yet faced serious flak from some musicians over the amount they get paid from streams of their music. When Radiohead's Thom Yorke described the company as "the last desperate fart of a dying corpse" in a much-quoted interview, he caused a right royal stink.

2014 is a crucial year for Spotify and other streaming music services, from Deezer, Rhapsody and Rdio to Google Play All Access, Xbox Music and the yet-to-launch Beats Music, as well as streaming 'personal radio' services like Pandora and Apple's iTunes Radio. The key questions: whether they can make enough money to cover for any fall in music sales (CD or digital) that they cause; whether the money they pay out is distributed fairly to musicians and songwriters; and whether what's left is enough to keep the ones who aren't Apple, Google and Microsoft in business.

Mobile is key to a lot of this: these streaming music services are fast becoming mobile-first entities, with people discovering and signing up to them on their smartphones, and spending a lot of their time listening on these devices too. By the end of 2014, devices running the three main smartphone operating systems (iOS, Android and Windows Phone) may well come with streaming music built in. Expect more hard questions being asked by musicians both of the streaming services, and the record labels who distribute those companies' payouts to the music creators.

7. Apple and Google will throw their weight behind better app discovery. What's cooler? No, not a billion apps. It's the ability to find the 10-12 apps you're interested in from this enormous digital haystack. It's debatable whether app discovery is a problem for smartphone and tablet owners at the end of 2013. It's more accurate to say many are happy using a handful of social, productivity and media apps, and playing the games recommended to them by friends or their chosen app store.

For developers, app discovery is a problem though: with more than 1 million apps available on iOS and Android, cutting through the clutter – even with a marvelous app – is difficult without a monster marketing budget (and even then it's not a certainty). This is an opportunity though: for Apple and Google in particular to come up with smarter ways to understand their users and make personalized recommendations of apps that they'd like.

2014 may be too early for this, but I hope one day soon, the idea of a single app store homepage that everyone in a particular country sees will seem rather quaint, as opposed to a different app store homepage for every user, based on what they've downloaded/bought in the past, and even more importantly, what they've actually used.

Stuart Dredge is a freelance journalist in the U.K. His writing appears in The Guardian, The Observer, Music Ally and his own apps-for-kids site Apps Playground. Follow him on Twitter @stuartdredge.

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