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The smartphone identity crisis continues

smartphone device confusion

Mobile World Congress 2017 looks set to be the most underwhelming yet for smartphone launches, but what can be done to change that?

Samsung isn’t even bothering to launch its new flagship phone at the show this year, with the WSJ reporting the launch will happen a month later than usual in New York. One major reason for the delay can safely be assumed to be an extra month of testing and QA in acknowledgement that absolutely nothing can be left to chance after the Note7 calamity.

In spite of that, the WSJ reports the S8 might still use batteries manufactured by Samsung SDI, despite that supplier being blamed for the Note7 incandescence. If Samsung decides to stick with SDI, even as further reports emerge of a fire at one of its factories, then it clearly has nerves of steel. It goes without saying that even one S8 overheating incident could make Samsung’s entire mobile strategy go up in smoke.

While ‘not exploding’ might be considered table-stakes in smartphone design best-practice, finding some way of differentiating the device from countless other touchscreen devices is another matter entirely. Among the innovations Samsung is expected to eventually unveil are a move entirely to curved screens and its own AI assistant called Bixby, for some reason, that will have a dedicated button to activate it.

Samsung’s main rival is, of course, Apple, and KGI Securities Analyst Ming-Chi Kuo reckons it will launch three new iPhones this year, all of which will feature wireless charging. This innovation has been around for a while but has never really caught on, in spite of the obvious convenience. One reason, according Kuo, is that it can lead to overheating, which makes Apple’s move all the more surprising as all it has had to do to take share from Samsung recently is make sure its phones don’t overheat.

We spoke to Neil Mawston, smartphone analyst at Strategy Analytics, to get his take on the challenges facing today’s smartphone manufacturer. Smartphone innovation has plateaued in recent years,” said Mawston. “Smartphones have become too much like PCs, where they all look, feel and work broadly the same. Consumers are bored of ‘just another rectangle’ and they want something new.

“Device makers find any new innovations, like fingerprint sensors for security, are quickly copied by rivals and they are left to compete mostly on price, marketing and distribution. In the short-term, the next minor innovations will come from bigger screens and simple AI. Visitors to MWC in Barcelona will see more smartphones with 6-inch displays and a renewed push for voice recognition as an alternative way to type by finger on your touchscreen.

“In the longer-term, the ‘next big thing’ for smartphones is likely to be foldable and then rollable colour displays. Consumers like the idea of a big screen in a small pocketable device for consuming or creating content. However, there remain cost and component-reliability barriers to overcome, and mass-market delivery of folder or roller smartphones at decent price-points is at least 1 to 3 years away. For now, smartphone players are stuck in a ‘wait and see’ pattern for device innovation.”

The flexible screen concept has been around for a while and it’s certainly novel, but as Mawston says the economics have yet to make sense. The fact is that smartphones matured to their optimum form-factor and feature-set very quickly and, as Samsung showed, trying too hard to look for new gimmicks can back-fire. Consumers now just want smartphones to do their existing jobs well, but that’s not much of a tag-line to base a marketing campaign around.

  • Mobile World Congress

  • Samsung Electronics


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