Same old, Samsung: Smartphones are the new boring
Samsung's Galaxy S9 shows how hard it is to ring the changes in a smartphone market that has long been stagnating
There is little to excite consumers about the Galaxy S9, Samsung’s latest attempt to dethrone Apple’s iPhone as the most desirable handset on the market. It hardly matters.
For years, the smartphone market has been locked in a sort of stasis. Apple holds a strong position at the most profitable high-end of the market, thanks to a devoted set of followers; Samsung controls most of the rest of the market, while a handful of other manufacturers battle it out for the remaining scraps. The advances in iOS and Android, the two operating systems that account for 99% of sales, have slowed and the differences between them have narrowed.For all intents and purposes, the smartphone wars that were fought so fiercely half a decade ago are over, and the various tweaks that companies try seem to have little bearing.
This is not for a lack of desirable handsets: by all accounts last year was a vintage one for cellphones. Samsung’s devices were widely applauded, and Apple’s newest model, the iPhone X, received some of the best reviews in years. It has not seemed to make a difference. In the last quarter of 2017, iPhone sales actually fell against the same period a year ago, when the company was selling the iPhone 7, a much less lauded handset.
Samsung’s market share, meanwhile, stayed roughly in line with the previous year, a catastrophic one for the Korean giant as it was forced to recall its Note 7 device when dozens of models caught fire. The episode was followed by a corporate disaster in which its de facto boss was thrown in jail and its chief executive resigned, uncharitably calling Samsung’s situation an “unprecedented crisis”.But during that period, it has reached a record profit and its market share of global smartphone sales has barely budged, hovering at just under a fifth of the market making it the world’s biggest smartphone maker. In an alternate universe, in which the company had faced no crisis whatsoever, things would not have turned out much differently.
Little seems likely to change the market now. The one potential challenger to the Samsung-Apple duopoly, Google, released its own smartphone in 2016 but it has not made a dent on the incumbents. The company sold just under four million handsets last year — roughly 1% of the phones that Samsung did, despite the high praise its Pixel smartphone received.So what to make of the Galaxy S9, Samsung’s latest device, which was unveiled last night at Mobile World Congress, the industry’s annual trade show? It may represent the pinnacle of smartphone engineering. The company pointed to its finely-tuned design and high-resolution camera as evidence of that (other headline features, such as the embarrassing “augmented reality emoji” will hopefully be forgotten).The most likely response from consumers, however, will be a yawn. The wide adoption of smartphones means having the latest model is no longer a status symbol, and improvements are now iterative across the industry.
In Samsung’s case, the features on its new model, most notably the improved cameras, are expected, and relatively minor — hardly the sort of thing to make consumers queue up in droves on launch day. This week’s Mobile World Congress, the industry’s trade show in Barcelona, is likely to see few truly radical innovations.
It is hard to blame the companies themselves: one can imagine few ways to improve a modern mobile phone beyond the deafening demand for greater battery life, a problem that would require bending the laws of chemistry to solve.
When they were an emerging category, smartphones would surprise us with new features every year. But sales grew so quickly that they became ubiquitous. Now, phones are more like cars: bought for a purpose, run into the ground, and replaced when they have outlived their natural lifespan. They are quotidian devices, tools for our daily lives rather than playthings. And like cars, few people are now bothered about upgrading them every year.Last week, the research house Gartner said that smartphone sales had declined for the first time ever. In the fourth quarter of last year, handset sales were down 5.6pc, a drop of 24m to 408m. This was explained by a trend of us holding on to our phones for longer as their rising costs mean we are more reluctant to replace them on a regular basis.In other sectors, this would count as cause for alarm. In 2012, when sales of personal computers fell for the first time in more than a decade, it was seen as a catastrophe, a sign that the world had entered a “post-PC” era in which the smartphone would become the dominant computer in our lives. It proved to be true: PC sales have fallen routinely since.
But last week’s news brought no such panic about the smartphone industry today. Largely, this is because there is nothing obvious to replace it: speakers controlled by artificial intelligence assistants are a growing category but their uses are still limited, and the market pales in comparison to the mobile industry. More exciting and potentially disruptive technologies, such as augmented reality glasses, are still years away from being practical or cheap enough to be desirable.
Until that happens, we will be stuck with year after year of underwhelming phone launches. And they will continue to sell in their billions.
– © The Daily Telegraph