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Monday, September 27, 2021

Why phone companies need to come out of this boring ‘risk-averse’ phase

Strangely enough, the industry isn’t ready to move beyond the foundation laid by Steve Jobs when he announced the iPhone in 2007.

Written by Anuj Bhatia | New Delhi |
Updated: August 19, 2021 11:26:22 am
apple, samsung, iphone, oneplus, xiaomi, lg, lg phones, nokia, blackberry, sony, sony xperia, smartphones, apple iphone, google, google androidLG's last big-ticket smartphone, the Wing, was a unique dual-screen device with a primary screen that swivels sideways to reveal a secondary, smaller screen underneath. (Image credit: LG)

During the weekend, I started searching for LG Wing on OLX and found countless listings of the smartphone, once considered to be the last resort for the South Korean major to correct its flagship smartphone strategy. LG is now out of the smartphone business, and it’s sad to see how a company once on the top of the game was reduced to closing its phone division after bleeding money for years.

The perception in the industry is that because LG had a string of not-so-commercially successful smartphones, it was left with no choice but to exit the market. This may be true in a business sense as sustainability is key in the long run. But LG never got the credit it deserved for coming up with “risky” smartphones when the entire industry was taking flak for a clear lack of innovation.

Yes, LG’s smartphone strategy was a mess with no clear focus. But what the company did right was to keep coming up with phones that were unique and not run of the mill in search of a hit. Had LG been conservative in its approach, we would have not got the G8X ThinQ, V10, or G5 modular phone?

LG may not be making phones anymore, but its absence will leave a void in the smartphone industry. People have already forgotten LG and its contribution to the phone industry like they did with BlackBerry, Palm and Nokia. Do you remember the BlackBerry Passport or Nokia Lumia 1020? Probably not.

The only reason I mentioned the “Wing” smartphone was to give the context of how a phone as different as this failed to make any impact. In fact, the Wing was a strange and wild device with a cool swivel mechanism. It could have been the phone that helped LG make a dent in the market but it wasn’t marketed well especially in a market where people are used to “popular” phones.

Brands stick to formula as an excuse for not trying something different. By “risky” I don’t mean “concept” phones that aren’t ready for common users. I am talking about phones that have all the mainstream elements yet have a differentiated design and one or two features that are exclusive to a device. Right now, every brand is heavily leaning on the “pro” branding in their top-tier phones when the reality is consumers are not actually reaping benefits from the features highlighted in glossy ad campaigns.

Apple iphones, iphone, lg wing, samsung galaxy smartphones, oneplus, smartphones, android smartphones, xiaomi redmi phones, latest smartphones, upcoming smartphones The Nokia Lumia 1020 was a departure from a sea of boxy phone designs when it made its debut in 2013. (Image credit: Nokia)

The core issue with the mainstream phone market is that brands have become too averse to change. They know how to make a hit device, but lack the ambition to try something unique that surprises consumers. This wasn’t the case before when brands regardless of the outcome try to do something creatively satisfying. Nokia, Sony Ericsson and BlackBerry used to experiment with different designs and form factors regardless of the outcome. Sadly, that zeal is missing in newer brands.

The problem also lies in the fact that we are stuck in the iPhone era, and Apple too hasn’t come out of its glorified past. You already know what the next iPhone may look like, and you probably also know when to buy it way before Apple makes the product official. Regardless of what brands say about leaks, they have failed to keep their upcoming products away from the public eye for competitive reasons.

Apple iphones, iphone, lg wing, samsung galaxy smartphones, oneplus, smartphones, android smartphones, xiaomi redmi phones, latest smartphones, upcoming smartphones Apple co-founder Steve Jobs during the launch of the original iPhone in 2007. (Image credit: Reuters)

The only way the industry can grow further is when stakeholders, be it phone manufacturers or chip makers, start coming up with bold and innovative ideas. Tech is about freshness and excitement, with new trends, different designs and products coming every year. Strangely enough, the industry isn’t ready to move beyond the foundation laid by Steve Jobs when he announced the iPhone in 2007. The iPhone was a game-changer and will always remain an integral part of the consumer tech revolution, but it’s time to search for the next big thing in tech. That can only happen when phone companies start experimenting with new form factors and designs and try to compete on that front instead of fighting on megapixel count and higher refresh rate screens.

If Apple takes a minimalist approach to design, Vivo can take a different route and add fun to its devices. What is happening right now is that if one company adds a particular design element or a feature to its phone, other brands quickly follow suit and launch an identical-looking device within months. Consider the different ‘feel’ that a Louis Vuitton bag has when compared with, for example, Chanel. Establishing your individual brand identity is all about finding your niche and communicating the personality of the brand, and that is missing in tech right now. BlackBerry was known for its QWERTY phones and the brand knew who would buy its business-centric phones. Even when things weren’t right within BlackBerry and the company was losing market share, the brand didn’t stop making phones like the Priv and the Passport. Neither the Priv nor the Passport saved BlackBerry.

Apple iphones, iphone, lg wing, samsung galaxy smartphones, oneplus, smartphones, android smartphones, xiaomi redmi phones, latest smartphones, upcoming smartphones Rather than being seen as another iPhone copycat, the BlackBerry Passport was designed to be roughly similar to those of a passport. (Image credit: Amazon.com)

Things that need to be addressed is how do we design a modern smartphone that is free from the shadow of the iPhone. Barring the screen size and bigger cameras, the phone form factor that Jobs’ envisioned with the iPhone is still in circulation. How do I differentiate between the OnePlus 9 and OnePlus 9 Pro, if they both look the same? Like with a serialised Hollywood franchise, buyers too know what to expect from a smartphone, can guess its features before its launch, and anticipate what will be new in its camera. This is because smartphones are becoming increasingly formulaic, and even if a few brands want to try out different things, they get no support from the industry.

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