What will sell the smartphones of the future?
Editor Adam recently penned an editorial detailing Sony’s recent announcement to retire the “Z” line of flagship smartphones. The move to the XPERIA X family of devices seems focused on blurring the line between mid-range and high-end phones. Sony is yet another company publicly resigning from the specs war, walking away from the premier tier of mobile device. Will Sony’s move be unique this year, or will other manufacturers follow in Sony’s footsteps?
Do specs matter?
The flagship phone market is a maturing market segment. Across the industry, we’re watching sales growth slow down. While new consumers find these devices each year, it’s not with the same fervor we saw during the early days of Android and iOS. In this climate, how do companies generate excitement for new products?
As tech has become a daily lifestyle staple, smartphones are an almost necessary daily companion device, the tone of the conversation surrounding these gadgets has shifted from capability to aesthetics. We’ve seen recently that even budget friendly entry level phones are quite capable of handling the communication and social media basics. People spending significantly more on a handset likely want that investment to be readily visible. That’s where we’ve seen a number of manufacturers focus on improving the look and design of flagship phone offerings. Plastic just doesn’t convey “premium” like it used to, and now aluminum or glass is preferred.
A phone needs to fit in with someone’s sense of style. As people define their style by which brand of car they drive or the clothes they wear, the phone a person uses will also contribute to that personal identity. If the “function” for most people can be achieved through low end devices, then “form” will be where we assign a premium.
Specs do matter, to a point…
We do still care about hardware and performance, but the discussion often hinges on very general issues. We all want better battery life. We all want better cameras. We all appreciate good audio. We all like “nice” screens. The tech community that might ask more demanding questions of manufacturers is a relatively small segment of the smartphone sales pie. If you can answer the above questions simply, that’s often “good enough”.
Yes it has good battery life. Yes it has a good camera. Music sounds good through headphones, and the screen is bright enough to be used outdoors. Which phone am I describing?
If Sony can deliver on a sub $500 device that matches high-end phones for camera performance, packed into a pretty aluminum shell, they stand a good chance of lowering the threshold on what consumers might enjoy. They’d be joining manufacturers like OnePlus, and Motorola in championing a “bang for buck” argument.
What happens next?
The competition from entry-level and mid-range devices is heating up. It’s not uncommon to find Full HD screens, reasonable cameras, decent batteries, and snappy CPUs below $200. We recently reviewed an Oppo with a killer selfie camera, and a Huawei with a fantastic fingerprint scanner which which both fit that description. Apple routinely sees positive stock market responses to rumors of a mid-ranger iPhone.
Even high end device manufacturers are finding opportunities to dial back some of the specs war marketing. Samsung moving to a lower resolution camera sensor on the Galaxy S7 is another potential trend we should keep an eye on. Will a consumer be more impressed by the ability to crop more, or will they be happier with a brighter image in low light situations? Similarly, why build a high end headphone amp into an LG if you can add one via an accessory port?
We can loosely examine the history of desktops and laptops to see what trends might affect smartphones soon. We see a cycle, starting with a focus on pushing specs to their limits, then broader consumer adoption, then more fashionable design, culminating in a commodity most people take for granted. When was the last time you got into a really heated geek debate over laptop manufacturers, or the last time family members were blowing up your inbox over which desktop PC they should buy?
Each generation of tech device has run through this cycle faster than the generation of device which came before it. Smartphones very quickly became mass market devices, and are now moving through the “fashion” end of the cycle. Is Sony jumping the gun on phones becoming commodities? Will other manufacturers soon follow suit? Share your thoughts in the comments below.