By Michael Fisher | September 17, 2012 3:31 PM
Here in America, the smartphone landscape doesn’t always follow in lockstep with the rest of the planet. Sometimes we get hot new devices months ahead of the rest of the planet, as with the American-made Motorola Droid RAZR M; other times, we only see widespread availability of cool hardware months after release- the Nokia Lumia 800 and PureView 808 are good examples. And carrier sponsorship -or lack thereof- has a huge effect on whether a particular smartphone gains traction here.
It’s for this reason that LG hasn’t featured strongly in my writing here at Pocketnow, or in my life in general. It’s not that I have anything against the South Korean manufacturer; it’s just that it’s been so long since it was last considered a relevant player that I sometimes forget it exists.
Make no mistake, though: those days existed. In the era of the dumbphone, LG caused its share of stir here in America, bringing us aspirational designs like the Chocolate series and VX8700 for Verizon Wireless, and the Fusic/Music line for Sprint. It even provided Verizon’s headlining Apple competitors back in the pre-3G days of the iPhone in the form of the EnV device family. Internationally, it pumped out incredible designs like the mouthwatering BL40.
Then something happened. Not just the smartphone-market shakeup Apple accomplished with the iPhone -which LG managed to use to its advantage with its own wave of carrier-branded competitors like the EnV and Voyager- but the sudden influx of smartphones into the consumer space. As RIM, Microsoft, Palm, Google, and Apple started lassoing consumers into the smartphone world, hardware partners started gaining traction along with them. The smartphone explosion catapulted HTC into relevance and slingshotted Samsung into orbit, where it recently surpassed Nokia to become the world’s top handset vendor. Meanwhile, we’ve seen LG dwindle in scale, cutting its Windows Phone offerings amid conflicting statements about its future support for the platform, and professing a new focus on Android.
That focus shift, if unfortunate for lovers of Windows Phone, might actually be a tactically sound move for LG; it’s certainly worked out well for rival Samsung. And indeed, LG has managed to consistently make headlines with its Android offerings, churning out a bevy of “firsts.” The company was the first to roll out a dual-core Android smartphone, and the first to offer a glasses-free 3D smartphone. We expect to see the company unveil another first-in-class very shortly as it takes the wraps off the Optimus G, the world’s first smartphone packing Qualcomm’s Snapdragon S4 Pro, which will offer LTE and quad-core performance on the same chip. Clearly, the company hasn’t been standing still.
But the company also fails in some crucial areas. Here’s three reasons LG hasn’t yet caught up to Samsung in the mobile-technology arena, and why it might not ever do so.
That rundown of well-crafted LG devices above was fun to write, but in retrospect it’s quite depressing. The company hasn’t cobbled together a truly earth-shattering device in years. That’s speaking from a visual standpoint; LG has certainly made headlines by beating others to the market with innovative new features, as mentioned above. It even implements traditional -some might say old-fashioned- features like hardware keyboards quite well; when I was shopping for my first Windows Phone device last year, I strongly considered the LG Quantum based on its excellent slide-out QWERTY pad. But these quality implementations always seem to be wrapped in a casing that’s dull at best.
That’s a trend that shows no sign of slowing; LG’s phablet offering, the Optimus Vu/Intuition, is a bold step for the company, a leap that took courage. I respect that. But the implementation is all wrong, the hardware resembling a graham cracker or roof shingle more than a usable handheld device, as our own Brandon Miniman remarked on in his recent unboxing video.
The latest round of “traditional” Optimus devices, the aforementioned “G” and the L9 I spent some time with at IFA, are better than the Vu, but still bring nothing new or exciting to the table insofar as hardware is concerned. That’s disappointing enough when it comes from a less-visible company like Huawei, but when it’s brought to you by the people who built the BL40, it’s sad.
The discussion about Android skins has been a long, involved one. We’ve certainly weighed in from time to time on the high and low points of various UI layers, and while the battle has been long and bloody, it seems that -for the time being at least- the OEMs have won. Android devices now feature skins more often than not. In the case of some manufacturers, like Samsung, HTC, and even Huawei, that’s not an entirely bad thing. There’s been a steady trend toward adding features without increasing lag, so skins are less onerous than they once were.
LG’s unimaginatively named “LG UI” doesn’t necessarily increase lag, but it doesn’t offer much in the way of utility. As we saw during our hands-on with the Optimus L9 in Berlin (linked previously), the latest iteration affords users extensive options for customizing app icons and transition effects, and it’s quite responsive in version 3.0. But its visual design is stuck in the Gingerbread era, it’s beset by typos in our Intuition review unit, and it doesn’t offer enough compelling set-offs to justify its inclusion over stock Android. Especially considering the inevitable update delay all skins cause.
To no one’s great surprise, Samsung has blown the face off the planet with its Galaxy S III marketing efforts. From billboards to bus wraps, the world’s leading handset maker has littered the developed countries of the world with ads touting not just the Galaxy S III brand, nor the Galaxy name in general, but the Samsung corporate logo, proudly spackled in every corner.
It’s not the only company with such a massive push; though it’s not what it once was, HTC’s marketing effort for the One series -and the company in general- has been quite visible, and of course Apple can always be counted upon to make a splash wherever it advertises. Apple’s such a perception powerhouse that other companies sometimes take it upon themselves to mention it.
Meanwhile, LG is pushing forward with the same old logo, and the same ambiguous tagline it’s employed for years: “Life’s Good.” While that might well be the case -and LG’s desire to distance itself from the “Lucky Goldstar” brand of days past is certainly understandable- it’s just not enough “oomph” to get the company back into the minds of disinterested mobile-phone buyers. For that, the company needs something more akin to HTC’s aspirational videos, or Samsung’s feature-centric Galaxy S III spots: they may be weird, but they’re working.
If LG were to announce a solid new piece of unique hardware this week, with a new software skin offering real value (or a closer-to-stock experience), along with a brand reboot, it would be the most exciting tech news from the company in a long time. Of course, we’re expecting to see LG make an announcement this week with at least some of those attributes. But the three-point plan needs to be there. It’s a hat trick or nothing. With only two of the legs in place, the stool can’t stand up. And so on and so forth.
It would be great to see LG burst back onto the scene and shore up its position as a leading smartphone manufacturer, to offer a real challenge to its rival Samsung. But based on everything we’re seeing from the company, it’s business as usual at LG: more and more firsts, with fewer and fewer damns given.
Here’s hoping this week’s announcement will change that somehow. But I’m not holding my breath.