In some ways, LG and Samsung are very much alike. Neither company focuses too much on any one niche market, and both have really differentiated their product profiles. Beyond just smartphones, they each churn-out popular home electronics, appliances, industrial equipment, and are invested in producing the components that then go into products made by any number of additional companies. However, while Samsung manages to do all this and still dominate the smartphone market, LG is barely a blip on the radar. I had been hoping LG might be able to work out its issues with smartphone design, production, and marketing, and rise to compete on the level of Samsung or even HTC, but that just isn’t happening.
It’s weird, because a cursory glance at the smartphone landscape might suggest that LG is doing just fine. It certainly looks like one of the major players, catching Google’s favor as the manufacturer of the latest and greatest Nexus handset, and over the years it’s produced some really interesting hardware. That’s meant a lot of milestones, like the Optimus LTE with its 720p display, the Optimus 2X with its dual-core SoC, and the Optimus 3D with its no-glasses-required 3D screen; HTC may have beat it to the punch with a 1080p phone, but rest assured, LG will soon be joining that club, as well.
The problem is, LG just doesn’t have the kind of sales numbers that put it in the same race as these other guys. We looked at some figures earlier this month that didn’t even place LG in the top five manufacturers of smartphones for 2012, surpassed by even RIM, which hasn’t had any serious new hardware come out since 2011. LG only made the chart when we factored-in dumbphone sales, as well, and even then its combined phone efforts only accounted for 4% of the global market, down 2% over the course of the year.
So, what the heck’s causing this big disconnect? I don’t think there’s any one big issue that’s been responsible for LG’s smartphone record, but I can certainly point to a number of specific things the company’s been doing that haven’t been helping its sales any:
For as much credit as I’d like to give LG for its willingness to invest in phones that introduce new technologies, or otherwise try and push limits a little, it doesn’t have the best track record in predicting how the market will respond to these offerings. The most obvious might be the Optimus 3D, during that short period when it seemed there could be a chance that 3D phones would be the next big thing. HTC and LG both made that gamble, and while their phones were largely fine, they just didn’t captivate us in the ways those companies would have liked.
More recently, the LG Optimus Vu really stands out for me as a misreading of trends. After the Samsung Galaxy Note’s initial success, other manufacturers started preparing to hop-on the “phablet” bandwagon, releasing their own jumbo-sized phones. While that produced some very compelling hardware like the 1080p Droid DNA, not to mention Samsung’s own fantastic Note II, the Vu seems to have just totally misunderstood what consumers were looking for. It’s almost like LG convinced itself that the only thing a phablet needed was a big screen, and then threw out everything else it knew about phone design. After all, how many other Androids do you see with a 4:3 screen ratio? As a result, the Vu was annoying to hold, uncompelling to use, and lacked any of the extra features that made other phablets sing.
Even when LG manages to release a phone that its users really like, it can’t seem to get its act together and keep the phone well-supported in software, a hugely important step if you want to retain any of those customers when it comes time to buy their next phones. Among the big guys, a recent analysis placed LG dead last for delivering Android updates in a timely manner.
Considering all the problems Google has been having getting together enough Nexus 4 handsets to meet the demand, you’d think that LG would really be capitalizing on the situation, pushing the Optimus G as an on-contract alternative that you could have now (much like T-Mobile and its Nexus 4), but even ignoring the pricing disparity, it’s really hard to get excited about the Optimus G. That’s not to say it isn’t a nice phone; we really liked it in our review of the handset as offered by AT&T, but even then we had our apprehensions about software availability. Unlike the Nexus 4, it arrived running Ice Cream Sandwich, and LG’s reputation for middling software support left us questioning just how favorably the phone’s updates would stack-up against the Nexus 4’s in the long run.
It almost feels like LG’s heart just isn’t in the smartphone game. Maybe that’s a consequence of being a company focused on so many other industries, but as we’ve seen with Samsung, it’s still possible to excel in a number of disparate markets. Could LG just have its sights set markedly lower, comfortable with its little slice of the pie but lacking the aspirations to really step up and dominate in any appreciable way? If it’s happy with its place, that’s fine, but I’m just a little disappointed that a company with so much potential isn’t trying a little harder to really “wow” us with great phones and great support.