Next-generation battleground widens, competition deepens
Samsung back to drawing board; Huawei branches out; Microsoft goes phablet
WITH the curtains closed on this year’s Mobile World Congress (MWC 2015), one thing’s clear: The jostling between vendors has become more intense and will continue throughout the year.
There were hundreds of announcements last week in Barceloa, and while we can’t cover all of them, my colleague Keith Liu has made a gallant attempt here and here. Here are some of the more noteworthy ones:
All eyes were on what Samsung Electronics Co Ltd was going to bring to the table with its Galaxy S6 smartphone. After a disappointing debut and the subsequent lagging sales of its Galaxy S5 in 2014, the South Korean giant was under pressure to perform this year.
For the most part, the S6 got the thumbs up for its curved screen design and all-aluminium metal body, wrapped by Corning’s Gorilla Glass 4 on the front and back.
But what really caught my eye wasn’t so much the specs and features, but the fact that Samsung went back to the basics to focus on design, rather than on gimmicky features.
One of the most hated issues about Samsung’s Galaxy smartphones, especially the S4 and S5, was that they were filled with ‘bloatware’ – unnecessary software-driven features that sit on top of their TouchWiz user interface (UI).
Various news reports suggest that the S6 will have less of that clutter, and while we can’t know for sure until it debuts in April, this is surely a welcome move by the handset maker.
Focusing its energies on physical design was a good move, as this positions Samsung as an innovator rather than a follower, something that it has been accused of being in the last few years.
While it’s hard to say how the market will react to the S6, redesigning a phone that excites aesthetically as well as one that has top marks in performance would, at the very least, make challenging Apple’s iPhone dominance a more realistic ambition.
Ovum lead analyst Ronan de Renesse sums it up: “With the S6 and S6 Edge, Samsung is directly attempting to win back iPhone 6 and 6 Plus users – and looks likely to succeed.
“However, its sales will be affected by the fact that Apple captured most of the high-end market in 2014; Samsung may have to wait for those users to upgrade, hindering its 2015 prospects,” he added.
While it was a no-brainer that Huawei Technologies Co Ltd would introduce a new array of smartphones and tablets at MWC 2015, few predicted that it would pivot and showcase an upmarket, stylish, dress smartwatch for the masses.
With its refreshingly simple product name, Huawei Watch, the device showed the world that the Shenzhen, China-based company is setting its sights on wearables in a serious way, trying to please both geeks and fashionistas.
Huawei Watch is powered by Android Wear software and has a 42mm circular face. It sports a 400x400 pixel display (286 pixel-per-inch), making it the highest resolution Android Wear device yet. The screen is made of sapphire crystal, the same kind of unscratchable material used in real watches.
The internals are standard and comprise a 1.2GHz Snapdragon 400 processor, 512MB of RAM, and a 300 mAh battery, reports Ars Technica.
Most first-hand looks by reputable tech publications gave the Watch the thumbs-up.
Ars Technica says it was one of the best-looking watches to showcase at MWC 2015, while Stuff Magazine was also impressed by it. Ditto Mashable, which noted that the “Huawei Watch is, believe it or not, really elegant.”
However, two sore points will likely stymie buyers: Its hefty US$1,000 price tag and the fact that there was no mention of its battery life.
What was significant to me, notwithstanding these issues, was that it not only demonstrates Huawei’s ambition to be a serious device maker outside of smartphones, but also how smartwatches could look good as fashion accessories – a brave new market for wearables in the years to come.
Commenting on this, Thomas Husson, principal analyst with Forrester Research, says Huawei has made a great looking smartwatch despite consumers – specifically in the West – not expecting it to pull it off.
IHS Technology mobile analysis head Ian Fogg, writing in M2M Now magazine, notes that this market is still new and emerging, but Huawei clearly has bigger aspirations than hardware alone – it also is developing its own health ecosystem.
But Forrester’s Husson argues though there are challenges facing the company, in that the key success factor for Huawei is to establish its transformative brand in the new connected world.
Fogg adds, “There are two key factors outside of Huawei’s control: The fortunes of Google’s Android Wear platform and the reception to Apple Watch.
“If Apple Watch were to stumble, it could set the whole market back. If it is a success, then Huawei may be too far behind by the time the Watch eventually goes on sale in mid-2015.”
Rounding up what I thought was worth mentioning are two Windows-based smartphones targeted at the budget-conscious crowd.
The first is the Microsoft Lumia 640 (Third Generation or 3G version) and the second is the 640XL (Long Term Evolution or LTE version), dubbed as Microsoft’s first ‘phablet-sized’ smartphone.
Notable specs include quad-core processors and 720p screen resolutions for both devices. A full listing of the specs can be found here. They will be available sometime in May.
What was really significant to me was that Microsoft Corp has made genuine attempts to reach a new stratum of the market with these beauties, so that consumers can now get their hands on such devices without breaking the bank. The 640 will retail unlocked (without a plan) at US$155, while the 640XL (LTE version) will retail at about US$177.
The Redmond, Washington-based company is making genuine strides towards reaching a growing segment of the market that has begun eschewing high-priced smartphones for cheaper, functional workhorses.
That they are good looking, well-made and reasonably priced is not in doubt, but one of Microsoft’s greatest drawbacks really is that its Windows operating system (OS) is just not gaining enough market share to really be considered a true third force in the mobile OS world.
The new Lumia 640 and 640 XL smartphones – especially the LTE versions – will offer a great user experience at an affordable price, Forrester’s Husson says in a research note.
“But it remains to be seen if they are able to impress consumers in the competitive markets of China, India, and other emerging mobile markets,” he adds.
Speaking about a smartphone powered by Windows 10, CNET reports that consumers won’t get to see any new Microsoft flagship smartphone for some time until the company is able to launch it together with its Windows 10 platform.
As far as Windows 10 is concerned, one of the key problems has been the lack of key apps such as those found on Android and on Apple’s iOS platform, writes Roger Cheng of CNET.
Quoting Ifi Majid, director of the phone marketing team at Microsoft, Cheng writes, “The move to Windows 10, which offers developers the ability to create universal apps that run across smartphone and PC platforms, will help generate interest.
“In the meantime, Microsoft is looking at adding more popular apps, with a focus on nabbing local apps in specific regions.”
Forrester’s Husson notes that while Microsoft will be able to deliver a great cross-screen experience via Windows 10, it still lacks reach when it comes to mobility.
This is true for the Western world where the Windows’ market share is still too limited, but most of all for the emerging countries where smartphone growth is coming from, he argues.
“To engage end-users via a suite of mobile services on Android and iOS is definitely the right strategy,” he argues.
“But to really become the third platform, Microsoft will have to launch successful devices in the lower-end smartphone market segments, especially for its Windows 10 flagship smartphones, later this year,” he adds.
MWC 2015 wrap-up: Wearables and IoT the next growth areas?
MWC 2015: Samsung unleashes Galaxy S6, other goodies
A rundown of the smartphones launched at MWC 2015 (Updated)
Mobile World Congress: Moving beyond device launches
For more technology news and the latest updates, follow us on Twitter, LinkedIn or Like us on Facebook.