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Handset developments: premium design for minimal cost

by Gavin Sugden , 17.03.2015

At the recent Mobile World Congress 2015, despite the onslaught of new devices (e.g. smartwatches) and technologies (e.g. connected car), handsets still dominated media headlines and buzz. So what new innovations and offers have manufacturers of these ubiquitous devices offered to consumers this year…and what are the wider implications for the development of this market for the rest of 2015?

Premium smartphones

Standing out from the crowd in the handset market is becoming increasingly difficult for manufacturers; yearly spec bumps are simply not enough. The majority of changes to flagship phones we have seen are iterative rather than innovative (battery life, processor, RAM). The evolution to metal bodies is a clear move to establish a premium feel for these products, with generally positive reviews on the new look and feel of flagship handsets from major manufacturers such as the Samsung Galaxy S6 and HTC One M9.

Curved screens and flexible displays

MWC 2015 saw the first execution of mass-market phones using this curved-screen technology. It first appeared in 2013 with Samsung Galaxy Round and LG G Flex, and later Note Edge. Much of it has been developed to apply to multiple products, including televisions and other large panels. While the engineering involved is very innovative, it is unclear whether features such as curved displays are actually meeting a consumer need. That said, the design and features of these products are eye catching and certainly help to differentiate these devices in an otherwise crowded high-end marketplace.

Meanwhile, scratches and damage to handsets are a well-documented problem for consumers, so LG’s self-healing proposition may have wide appeal if the benefits are communicated effectively. Third party developer adoption of new hardware will most likely depend on the popularity of the device.

More affordable high- and mid-end handsets with a mid-price range

Big brands have traditionally released high-end, premium price-point phones. This was not the case at MWC 2015, where these brands revealed their intention to compete in the increasingly expanding market for mid-end smartphones.

While the mid- and low-end is where growth is expected, Chinese manufacturers are already well-established in this category, and continue to compete strongly in this range.

The majority of key announcements from Chinese manufacturers taking on higher-end smart devices took place at January’s CES event. For example, the pre-MWC release of Chinese manufacturer Xiaomi’s flagship Mi Note and Mi Note Pro models showcased its drive into high-end territory. Constructed from premium materials and packed with branded technology (e.g. Sony camera, damage-resistant Gorilla Glass), Xiaomi’s flagship proves that offering high-end handsets at a mid-range price will win over consumers whose purchase considerations have always revolved around known brands.

Both the MWC and CES events highlight the movement of Chinese manufacturers into the mainstream, and subsequent evolution from small-scale challengers to brands in their own image.

High-end camera quality

As a key established name in image quality, Sony played to its strengths at MWC by exhibiting new image technologies. While struggling with smartphone sales, the manufacturer continues to dominate the image (sensors) field, with high-end feature smartphones – including those disrupting Chinese brands – carrying Sony-branded technology under the hood.

While the company recently announced it will scale back smartphone production in the future, it is currently in pole position to keep supplying emerging handset manufacturers with their hardware – but expect to see this ‘hidden market’ for components heating up as sales of mid- and high-end handsets rise globally.

Wireless charging

As smartphones incorporate much thinner batteries, and are used for much more complex activities (such as video data consumption), so consumers have become increasingly frustrated with limited battery life. Available across a wide-variety of smartphones, some of which are compatible across a variety standards, so consumers will have lots of opportunity to utilize this new technology, and help them to boost their battery life in an easy and convenient way.

Smartwatches were also rumored at MWC to be chargeable in this way but didn’t become a reality. Given recent news of limited battery-life on recent smartwatch launches, extending the functionality of wireless phone-chargers to more devices is set to enhance their appeal further.

Check out our key highlights for Mobile World Congress 2015.

For more information, contact Gavin Sugden at gavin.sugden@gfk.com.