2021 Mobile Industry Predictions

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This post first appeared on a Sinch Community site on January 25, 2021.

It is once again time for my annual (14th consecutive to be specific) predictions for the mobile industry.  When I wrote last year’s predictions, I (and really no one) could have foreseen the momentous events that 2020 brought the world.  From the global COVID-19 pandemic to the significant Black Lives Matter protests, and actions, climate-related events, to the US presidential election, its aftermath and more.  All have impacted the wireless / mobile industry, but in many ways, the mobile industry has responded well to the pandemic, which has been the overriding issue for the planet in 2020.

Here is the assessment of my 2020 predictions.

A great deal of 2021 will be continuations and fallout from 2020.  A year like 2020 will not recede easily into the background without many ramifications for years to come. This will certainly apply to mobile industry as well.  As we start the new year the COVID-19 pandemic is worse than it ever was in many countries – especially the United States.  The fallout from the Presidential election, its aftermath, and the January 6th insurrection in at the US Capital will continue to affect the mobile and online industry. I expect we’ll continue to see the mobile industry play an ever-increasing role in people’s lives as a primary tool for communications and of course, information.

Here are my 2021 mobile industry predictions, in no particular order:

  1. In the mobile handset world, expect an iPhone 12S (not iPhone 13) this year.  It will support the same set of 5G bands as did the iPhone 12 that was released at the end of 2020.  The iPhone 12S will return to fingerprint validation, but in addition to facial recognition. This will further help as we are likely to wear masks for the foreseeable future. Expect to see an iOS 15 rollout this year as well.  Standards based RCS (Universal Profile) iOS support will not be forthcoming in 2021. Finally, expect Android 12 to be release in 2021 with new features for more phones. Additionally, this release will incorporate capabilities so major new, annual releases won’t be necessary.
  1. SMS Messaging will continue to be the go-to and default messaging channel for enterprises and businesses. Expect a nominal increase (10-15%) in terms of A2P messaging volumes as more SMBs leverage this channel. In 2020, we saw some temporary P2P SMS increases in some markets such as the United States. For 2021, we’ll go back to a more steady-state to slight decline – especially for markets such as the United States.
  1. While 2020 was not particularly kind to RCS (it did not achieve even three-quarters of a billion MAUs), as well as impacts from the pandemic.  For 2021, expect to see 800 million MAUs of RCS with at least 40 countries with all operators supporting (e.g. gold countries). While Google has made some moves to confuse the marketplace, we will continue to see steady adoption by enterprises and brands.  No Apple support for RCS in 2021 either.  In the United States, expect some impact from the CCMI group; however, this group’s influence has waned, somewhat.
  1. Social/Chat App Messaging will see considerable changes for 2021.  While WhatsApp will still lead as channel, it will lose some subscribers / MAUs to other chat apps (e.g. Telegram or even SMS), due to Facebook’s announcement that they may share WhatsApp user information with Facebook and Instagram. As of early January, Telegram reported 500 million active users. For 2021, I’ll predict that Telegram grows the fastest, reaching over 800 million active users by the end of the year. This will also negatively impact Facebook Messenger. Because of the “rush” to other channels, we’ll see continuing controversy and even moderation of groups on some channels to actually increase, in order to avoid government regulation.
  1. Mobile messaging has been the 2nd cornerstone of business outreach, along with mobile apps.  The Communications Platform as a Service (CPaaS) companies are leveraging this interest for some years. For 2021, we can forecast that all of the top 5 public messaging companies will have a CPaaS offer that is central to their revenue, with SMS messaging still the number one channel.  There’s lots of interest in omnichannel solutions (including chat apps and voice), but SMS will continue to prevail with these companies.
  1. 5G will continue its rollout, globally. We will see more than 200 mobile networks in over 80 countries launch commercial 5G services.  For LTE, that will increase to over 830 mobile networks and over 375 LTE-Advanced networks.  In the United States, which is currently behind in mid-band spectrum usage (3-24 GHz just now auctioning), expect some initial mid-band rollouts before the end of the year by US carriers.  Finally, we mustn’t forget IoT specific networks, so look for over 150 NB-IoT networks and 75 LTE-M networks.
  1. The mobile Industry consolidation and acquisitions that we saw in 2020 (such as T-Mobile acquiring Sprint, as well as SAP Digital Interconnect being acquired by Sinch; OpenMarket by Infobip, among others) will continue into 2021. Expect additional M&A among messaging / CPaaS providers as this industry segment is quite active. We may also see some unexpected acquisitions of mobile business players (messaging, apps) by companies, previously unaffiliated with the mobile industry.
  1. Authentication, Identity, and Privacy remain at the forefront of consumers (and businesses, alike) for their digital presence. Consequently, we’ll continue to see two-factor authentication (2FA) continue as the primary means to validate users beyond user-id and passwords.  SMS based 2FA will continue to be the primary means of 2FA, followed by TOTP-based 2FA solutions (e.g., Google Authenticator and others). Some passwordless validation solutions will pick up momentum but won’t be mainstream yet. Finally, we will see further validation options leveraging mobile operator data, based on the GSMA Mobile Connect features; however, country coverage will remain limited.
  1. As there has now been a United States political shift, expect that network neutrality will be back in play with the US’s FCC.  But this time, instead of “back to the old Wheeler-era network neutrality regulations,” this version should have more staying power and result in less negative impact to the wireless space. Additionally, we should see some movement toward the breakup of larger technology conglomerates such as Facebook/WhatsApp/Instagram, which will have an impact on mobile. Finally, expect further discourse around protections afforded online (and messaging) community providers regarding their moderation (or lack thereof).
  1. The COVID-19 pandemic is historic and is ongoing. In 2020, the mobile industry really responded to help people communicate, gain access to basic goods while on lockdown, and became an even more important tool for almost all areas of life. Healthcare, specifically telemedicine is one area where the mobile industry has really shown some innovation. For 2021, expect more chatbot and messaging combinations to support telemedicine. We will also see mobile player a large role in managing the vaccine rollout across the world – both with messaging and apps. Finally, as more and more people are vaccinated, look for a few mobile-centric “vaccine passports” to emerge.

Final Thoughts

If you’ve made it this far through last year’s assessment and the 2021 predictions, you can see that 2020 was unlike anything we could have possibly imaged one year ago (as of this writing). The pandemic, the political divides, Black Lives Matter protests, and more dominated our lives.

We turned to our mobile devices even more than we ever have for news, camaraderie, communications, shopping, health, food, and more. It is up to us in the mobile industry to continue to be vigilant but innovative to find better ways to leverage these smart devices that everyone now has and to even encourage and show people how to use them to their fullest potential.