The smartphone market sorely needs better competition


We’re less than two short weeks away from the end of 2013 and it’s hard to deny that this year has been a pretty great one for smartphones. Sure, some players struggled more than others, but the industry’s in a stronger, more mature, and just more interesting place than it was a year ago.

For all the progress that’s come our way, though, I wonder if we’re not missing out on even bigger and better things. Because as much as the landscape has grown, we’re still dealing with a small group of players, and an even more select group of the really big boys, the devices from which simply dominate sales.

On one hand, it’s nice to see a company do well and keep on doing more of that, bringing us newer and more attractive products that build off those that have already found so much success; we see this every day from the Samsungs and Apples of the world.

siny-firefoxThat’s fine for what it is, and product lines from these companies are some of our favorites, but what about hearing some new voices? Shouldn’t we be keeping ourselves open to the idea that a fresh face on the scene could offer some real spark? Some innovation? Something from smartphones that changes our expectations?

And to be fair, 2013 really had a lot of promise in this field. Both new platforms and new manufacturers made their presence known… and I’m pretty let down. For all the effort I’ve seen, no one’s really been able to convince me that the status quo is in jeopardy.

Let’s take a look at just what we’ve had to look at, and where I feel let down:

On the software side we saw Firefox OS start becoming available on commercial devices, with established manufacturers like ZTE stepping up to get involved. The idea of a system with low resource demands sure lent itself to the development of affordable hardware for up-and-coming markets – until the existing platforms simply did it better.

Sure, you can get a ZTE Open for about $100, but when you can get an all-around better experience with a phone like the Nokia Lumia 520 for LESS money, or step up to a Moto G for $180, these Firefox devices just don’t feel very compelling.

ubuntuphonesWith one foot in the software and one in the hardware side we have Canonical, which tried to make its first smartphone, the Ubuntu Edge, as a flagship for its new Ubuntu Touch platform. The crowdfunding effort attracted a lot of attention, and in spite of some really high-end plans for the phone’s hardware, that level of attention never managed to translate into enough support to keep the project going.

And as for the platform itself, well, even though we’ve since seen its release, it doesn’t quite feel finished, and we’re still waiting on manufacturers to start building phones around it – luckily, that should be coming next year (knock on wood).

Then there’s Jolla, which we’ve been following for a while and are finally getting the chance to put both the new phone and the Sailfish OS through their paces. This one could still be a solid contender, but reports of software glitches have cast a shadow over the initial launch. Again, this could be a wait-and-see case, and while I’m very excited about the possibilities this “Other Half” business affords, I’ve yet to come to any “wow” moment.

Clearly, not all of these have been outright disasters, so why am I so down on the state of smartphone competition? Well, what about companies that aren’t too concerned about inventing the next great platform and just want to make some phones? Surely, it must be much simpler to get started with an entity like that.

kazam-phonesI so had my hopes up for Kazam. News of the new company arrived in late spring, formed by a group of ex-HTC employees. I’m a big fan of HTC, so I was anxious to see what Kazam might deliver. But then when the time came to unveil the company’s initial offerings – well – they were a bit rubbish, appearing to be re-branded handsets from some (or more than one) anonymous Chinese OEM.

Kazam’s hardly the only one up to such shenanigans, and we just saw the US’s own Blu try to pass off another existing Chinese smartphone as one it made itself.

Is no one interested in making an honest effort to enter the smartphone manufacturing market?

Well, while I may not see many capital-N new players, there are some, like the new OnePlus, founded a former Oppo exec. And really, it’s in companies like both OnePlus and Oppo that we could start seeing the competition I dream for. That is, instead of wholly new entities getting involved with smartphones, we’re going to see some lesser-known players (to a global audience, at least – plenty of these guys are giants on their home turf) really start finding the international spotlight.

We’ve got Hugo Barra leaving Google for Xiaomi, so you had better believe that Xiaomi’s phones are going to start getting a lot of attention, and we just heard yesterday from Meizu about its own ambitions to spread beyond Asia and start getting a bite out of the US market.

So instead of some new kid on the block totally showing up out of the blue, we might instead be talking about the kids from across the street coming over to play more often. Ultimately, that will be fine, and any little effort to add competition to the market is welcome.

But I still wait for the day when we’ll see a new contender with the drive, ideas, and talent to not only enter the smartphone wars, but put up the sort of fight that has the old guard worried. Who’s going to be the Tesla Motors of smartphones? I’m hoping that 2014 might at least offer a few new contenders.

Image: Celularis

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About The Author
Stephen Schenck
Stephen has been writing about electronics since 2008, which only serves to frustrate him that he waited so long to combine his love of gadgets and his degree in writing. In his spare time, he collects console and arcade game hardware, is a motorcycle enthusiast, and enjoys trapping blue crabs. Stephen's first mobile device was a 624 MHz Dell Axim X30, which he's convinced is still a viable platform. Stephen longs for a market where phones are sold independently of service, and bandwidth is cheap and plentiful; he's not holding his breath. In the meantime, he devours smartphone news and tries to sort out the juicy bits Read more about Stephen Schenck!