Prior to 2007, the smartphone market was largely confined to a relatively small group of business customers, and was focused on enabling business people to get their emails sent on the go. ‘Normal’ people used feature phones, with number keypads and tiny screens. Then the Apple iPhone happened, and consumers went crazy for smartphones with large touch-screens capable of browsing the internet, playing advanced games and taking quality pictures. 1.75 billion people are expected to use smartphones this year, with the number increasing every year as even the less-developed countries begin to snap them up.
In the last year or two, the smartphone market has gradually transitioned away from competition between manufacturers to have the absolute fastest handset available, with the most megapixels and the highest resolution screen. That is largely because key players like Samsung, Apple and HTC, began to realise that having the best device on paper does not translate directly into market share. People have started to look past the spec sheet, and focus their pre-purchase research on the overall experience that a smartphone delivers – the app ecosystem, the cloud integration and music services are what people use every day and care about the most. Crucially though, as the smartphone market has become ever-more saturated, getting the best bang-for-your-buck is high on people’s priority list. Heck, even Apple – who are generally considered to overcharge their customers – released a lower-cost iPhone alongside its flagship last year.
The shift in the aims of smartphone makers marks a turning point. Smartphones seemed to have reached a peak in innovation. New iterations of devices are only evolutions of their predecessors, and not revolutionary devices that seem to make your existing handset seem outdated in a flash. It doesn’t take a genius to see that Samsung’s flagship for this year, the Galaxy S 5, is not much different to 2013’s Galaxy S 4 – and that wasn’t a particularly significant upgrade over the Galaxy S III (3). Apple have used a bit of foresight, and drip-fed consumers features that other smartphones are crammed with – such as NFC and displays larger than 4.0-inches. HTC have had to put everything in to their latest smartphone lineups in an attempt to gain back some of the market share it lost to Samsung between 2011 and 2013, but even their 2014 flagship is an insignificant upgrade over the one from the year before.
It’s the ‘other’ players in the smartphone arena that are now starting to see significant success. Motorola have seen strong sales of their good value Moto X from 2013, as well as the Moto G and cheap-as-chips Moto E, and small-name companies like Oppo, ZTE and OnePlus are getting disproportionate levels of publicity. Google’s Nexus smartphones – which are seen as very good value for money, and were originally only aimed at developers to use as a platform to develop Android apps – are more popular with consumers than ever. And it’s not because their handsets offer anything new or ‘innovative’ – rather, it’s because they’re giving consumers the same things, but at better prices.
It begs the question – are smartphones going to get any smarter? Are people no longer going to buy a new smartphone because of new features, and instead just upgrade when they’re old one needs to be retired? Judging by the new-found focus of major companies on wearables, such as Samsung’s Gear smartwatches and Google’s Glass, and the determination of Apple to penetrate China’s largely-untouched smartphone market, I’d say so.
Smartphones can only get so big. Your family photos only need so many megapixels … and Angry Birds only requires so much processing power.