From a carrier price war to wearable technology, it was a busy 2014 for mobile -- and there's more to come next year.
A wireless carrier price war, several blockbuster deals, unlikely smartphone vendors emerging as major players and the rise of wearable technology -- 2014 was a whirlwind year for mobile.
The year kicked off with a bang when T-Mobile CEO John Legere crashed an AT&T party at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas -- and was summarily thrown out. The subsequent buzz propelled his Uncarrier press conference -- the first of eight such events held this year.
But T-Mobile wasn't alone in stepping up. Sprint replaced longtime CEO Dan Hesse with Brightstar founder Marcelo Claure, who quickly introduced a series of new plans and promotions to win back customers. With two players getting more aggressive, larger rivals Verizon Wireless and AT&T had no choice but to respond.
The year also saw a number of big deals, from AT&T's deal to acquire DirecTV for $48.5 billion and Lenovo's $2.9 billion acquisition of Motorola Mobility, taking the business off Google's hands. Smaller vendors, including China's Xiaomi and India's Micromax, have risen quickly thanks to a strategy of selling low-cost devices with decent specifications and designs.
The market for wearable devices arrived this year, thanks in part to Google's Android Wear platform. Samsung, Motorola and LG, among others, tried their hand at a smartwatch -- or in Samsung's case, tried multiple times. And Apple finally took the wraps off its long-awaited design . Who cares if consumers haven't really embraced them yet?
How does the mobile industry top itself in 2015? Here are eight predictions for the coming year.
1. Carrier price war intensifies. T-Mobile led the charge with an aggressive slate of promotions in 2014, including the introduction of a rollover data program earlier this month. While on a call with the media, Legere was already teasing Uncarrier 9.0 next year, so it's a safe bet that the carriers aren't going to rest.
While T-Mobile's momentum looks strong, expect Sprint to start making some headway. The company is steadily improving its network -- which has long lagged behind its competitors -- and doesn't appear to be afraid to go lower when it comes to prices or higher when it comes to the amount of data offered.
AT&T and Verizon, the nation's two largest wireless carriers, have shown they're not afraid to jump into the fray, and may be spurred to do more to if the smaller guys continue to take customers away. That's good news for consumers with more deals likely to come.
2. More carrier mergers and acquisitions ahead. The carrier price war is going to put a squeeze on the smaller, regional service providers. Many of them may get gobbled up in the next year. US Cellular, as the fifth-largest carrier, is an obvious candidate, but there are smaller companies out there. A deal would add customers and, more importantly, access to spectrum for the larger players.
You saw a bit of that trend this year. Sprint's parent, Japan's Softbank, attempted to acquire T-Mobile in an effort to create a larger combined third player. Regulators made it clear that they weren't having it, but other deals could surface.
3. The battle for No. 3 continues. Over on the handset manufacturer front, expect a continued shakeup with the rankings, with a particularly heated battle for the third player behind Apple and Samsung.
Apple is largely focused on the high-end market, while Samsung showed it was vulnerable in 2014, leaving a lot of business to be had for the rest of the field. For the moment, China's Xiaomi is the world's third-largest vendor, according to Gartner. But Lenovo combined with Motorola will make for a strong rival, while LG has proven to be adept in breaking into the same market that Samsung successfully targeted with the Galaxy S franchise.
Given Samsung's scale, it will likely remain No. 2, but its market share could continue to erode, particularly on the low end of the market.
4. It's not just smartphones anymore. The wireless industry has long fixated on cell phones -- now smartphones -- as the hot item to grab consumers. But the carriers are starting to see the opportunity in other connected devices. AT&T has been out front signing up automakers to wireless deals, with General Motors and Audi vehicles rolling out with LTE connections.
The carriers are working to connect everything, including connected billboards, ATMs and dog collars. Expect connected products to be more visible to consumers.
Which leads to...
5. Smartwatches start to grow up. 2014 was supposed to be the year of the smartwatch. And, in some ways, it was, with Samsung rolling out half a dozen smartwatches and nearly every major player coming up with their own take. Google tried to create a consistent experience with its Android Wear platform, but the software for wearable devices still isn't mature.
On a practical level, the smartwatches were big and bulky, and didn't last long without a recharge. While some showed aesthetic promise, others looked plain ugly.
Next year could be different. Apple will lead the charge with its Apple Watch, bringing more mainstream attention to the area. Samsung will undoubted press forward with more designs. Other vendors will learn from the mistakes of the past to create more refined products.
6. BlackBerry continues its transformation. BlackBerry was busy this year, but not necessarily on the smartphone front. Instead, it was working to improve its software and services offering as it looks to wean itself off of the hardware business.
It's clear why. Its BlackBerry Z3 was a device designed for the emerging markets, where the brand still means something. The company also came out with a special Porsche edition BlackBerry and the oddly shaped Passport, both more novelties than actual products. It recently unveiled the Classic, but that phone won't go into wide distribution until early next year.
It won't matter. BlackBerry hopes to satisfy the diehards with the Classic, which it hopes drives sales of its enterprise software and services.
7. Windows Phone slowly establishes credibility. Microsoft's mobile platform has won out as the No. 3 smartphone platform, but that hasn't meant much, as it remains far behind Google's Android and Apple's iOS.
A majority of Windows Phone's growth will come from the emerging markets, with cheap Windows Phone-powered devices proving to be a success. In mature markets like the US, it could see a lift in the prepaid market. Sprint, which also owns two prepaid businesses in Virgin Mobile and Boost Mobile, just began offering the Lumia 635, which retails for $99 off contract.
Microsoft could also put more of its muscle behind the Lumia line, which struggled to win mainstream attention when it was under the control of Nokia. The platform could also benefit from Windows 10, which promises a back-to-basics approach and tighter integration between the mobile and PC worlds.
8. New calling technologies goes mainstream. If you follow mobile, you might have heard some of these terms this year: Wi-Fi calling, VoLTE and HD Voice.
Expect to hear even more next year, as the carriers begin to roll out the new technologies in a big way. VoLTE, or voice over LTE, moves phone calls to the LTE network (voice traffic currently gets carried over the older, slower 3G network), which should improve the quality and enable new features like seamless video chats.
Another benefit of VoLTE is HD Voice, which enables sharper audio quality with phone calls.
Then there's Wi-Fi calling, which T-Mobile made a lot of noise about at its Uncarrier 7 event. Sprint also offered Wi-Fi calling on select phones. With Apple now supporting Wi-Fi calling, there will be pressure on all of the carriers to broadly adopt the feature, which is handy when cellular reception is spotty.
The carriers have already begun deploying all of these technologies, but they will go mainstream next year.