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Is it enough to be good enough?


Can anyone break the Apple and Samsung duopoly in the smartphone market?

The short answer to both questions I have posed, is yes but not right now.

If you would indulge me for a moment, I will put some context into my question here. There are many devices which are measurably better in some ways than the iPhone 4S and 5 or the Galaxy S3 and yet these have been the dominant phones for the last year or so. The question as to why has been explored at depth and is not the question I pose here. I am asking whether anyone, be it HTC, Nokia, LG or one of the major Chinese manufacturers such as Huawei or ZTE can challenge Apple and Samsung.

In order for a new platform to take hold in the market it needs to not only match its competition but be significantly better - tens of times better - than the competition in at least one key property which consumers value greatly whilst also being at least as good in all the other most valued properties. There have been many examples of this force in action. The iPod (with the help of iTunes) was far superior to its competitors in managing a users music collection. The original Blackberrys were miles ahead in terms of email management and text input, the iPhone in responsiveness and user experience.

Recently I was musing on why Windows Phone has not taken a large slice of the smartphone pie. It seems to me that whilst being a beautiful, easy to use, fast and responsive platform, it is is not significantly better in any of those ways. Nokia have made a valiant effort particularly with the Lumia 920, providing a camera that is much better than most smartphone cameras, but again, it is just not far ahead enough and it requires compromises in other areas.

That word compromise is a big problem. Smartphone consumers demand an almost impossible compromise of thin, light, compact devices with ever increasing screen real estate, better battery life, improved cameras and richer more complex ecosystems. It is simply impossible to meet expectations in all of these areas. The Nokia Lumia 920 is a great example of really trying to push the boundaries in one space - the camera - but at the expense of weight, and size. And consumers haven't bought it, metaphorically and seemingly literally.

It is becoming harder and harder to differentiate and innovate in the hardware space. Witness the recent Mobile Web Congress and how almost all high end Android devices from all manufacturers are 5" full HD screened devices with large batteries and very high resolution cameras in relatively light and slim bodies. If the rumors are true, Samsung will add themselves to the list of manufacturers going down this road. Apple might be the one company able to differentiate in a meaningful way, however, they are already one of the incumbents in the elusive stratosphere of smartphone market penetration.

If it is now almost impossible to be many times better than your competitors in hardware design, what is left for the smaller manufacturers to do to try and break the Apple, Samsung duopoly? Better marketing is definitely part of it, but it is not enough, Apple and Samsung have the budgets to out-market anyone. I see two primary possible approaches; services and software. Services might be a harder pill even than hardware given how ubiquitous Google services are today. Obviously on iOS, Apple services play a major role as well. The only company to really break into the services game on mobile recently is Amazon and they are not directly a device maker.

So what about software? Samsung have actually been making a lot of progress in this space for a few years now with the advancement of TouchWiz and the various software features launched with the Galaxy S3 such as Smart Stay, S-Beam etc etc. HTC have also tried differentiation through software and I am fascinated by what Sense 5 has to offer on the new HTC One. Software differentiation works - Nokia dominate the Windows Phone market at least in part due to their many times superior offerings to the other Windows Phone devices.

Can any device manufacturer bring software that offers many times the value to consumers than that which Apple or Samsung provides? Until they do, being good enough is nowhere near good enough. HTC, Nokia and all the others need to be much better than that whilst almost perversely Apple and Samsung can generally be just good enough to maintain their lead. We have reached a plateau in many ways for how good smartphone hardware can be and all the manufacturers now produce high end hardware which is broadly similar to each other. Smartphone software can be better but to break the duopoly it will need to be many many times better, a very difficult task.

I will boldly make a couple of predictions here. HTC have not made their new camera technology good enough to draw consumers on its own, but the HTC One as a whole does have enough innovation in its hardware and its software to succeed if HTC can help enough people to understand what Blinkfeed and Zoe are. The names could be a problem. My second prediction is that if Nokia solve the size and weight issue of their PureView technology, they will rise again to be a major player in the smartphone market. Their technology can be tens of times better than competitors, and that is how much better you have to be.

About the author

James Norton's Photo
An aspiring tech journalist and a complete phone geek with a passion for all mobile technology. Vast experience of all mobile platforms and an evangelist for quality design no matter where it comes from.

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11 Comments

I'd argue that cellphone cameras are more than "good enough" and have been for a while now on any even moderately upper-end phone, people wanting to use it AS a camera, should get a proper camera or you'll be forever stuck with fixed apertures, fixed zoom and disappointing optics due to the size of the lenses themselves. Adding more megapixels is not the answer, they're hitting physical limitations unless they find way to shove more light at a higher quality into a ~3mm lens.

Android is "too hard" for many people but more powerful/versatile for those who can grasp it. The issues with OS updates need to be addressed, but I doubt it's going to happen any time soon, if ever, in any useful fashion. The Windows phone UI is much more intuitive for basic functions, but quite obtuse for many things and limited in customisability. The same can be said of iOS to an extent, which is both a good thing & bad thing when viewed from different angles, but it makes up for it in the oft quoted number of available apps and ubiquitousness of the devices. It is all about compromises, power versus simplicity, functionality versus battery life and/or size. To a certain extent, it's about brand acceptance, hence the popularity of the iDevices which has waned as they've become so commonplace as to be almost a Volksfone. Taken to extremes this results in fanboyism which again has it's pros & cons both for the brand and the product.

Innovation has been fairly stagnant for the past couple of years with any new models being largely iterative in both design and function. Do we need "the next big thing", or do people just want to be able to use their phone for more than a day between charges? Be able to see the screen in bright sunlight? Take recognisable photos of non-static objects? Addressing the basics might not be great for marketing, but is it needed more than some showstopping new feature? Can we even conceive what that might be beyond a totally new OS?
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The Jones, I'm actually going to disagree with you on several points, plus I'm curious why you have omitted Sony from your article.

Firstly, Sony have been the first manufacturer to market with a device that covers all LTE bands, the Xperia Z.
Secondly, Sony have also launched Playstation Mobile, a service that HTC got several devices certified for because it will take off and gather a lot of momentum.

Windows Phone 8 is currently going through several rapid service pack updates, actually called General Distribution Releases or GDR for short, I'm currently seeing GDR2 being tested.
These are Apollo Plus updates that will suffice until Windows Blue launches, and by 2015, there might not be any difference between Windows 9 on mobile or PC, which is a fascinating concept, and I hope Microsoft succeeds in the implementation.

I would agree there are some current issues with Windows Phone 8, why a 500mb download needs 2GB space to install, but only takes up 500mb after install makes no sense, but hopefully we will see this disappear soon.

I am curious which manufacturer will make 1GB ram the minimum for all their devices, 512MB or less looks like being a bottleneck for most devices by the end of the year.
The iPhone 4S only has 512mb RAM, so we may still see devices with similar spec in the lower range of devices until Apple discontinues it, as the usual line of thought for other Manufacturers is if it's good enough for iOS devices, it's good enough for Android.
Which is not true and does my head in!

LG have shown that they yet again do not understand the market, the L-Series has been updated, and they are using the same components for the L3 II, just adding 128mb ram and a newer kernel source.

To me, the Nexus 4 is a disaster, it is not future proof, LTE is on the horizon for the United Kingdom, and I'm currently crossing my fingers that all UK Operators switch on DC-HSPA on their equipment so that Nexus 4 owners can see that their device is capable of 42Mbps, even though the iPhone 5S is due in August 2013 from all predictions, and I think we will see a new Nexus phone by the end of the year.

I would like HTC to make their minds up and decide on which Operating System they want to support, on all accounts I have seen so far the HTC 8S is a disaster, Nokia have shown with the Lumia 620 how to create a good budget Windows Phone 8 handset.

If ZTE gave as good support to Europe as they did to China, we would all have a ZTE Blade 3 right now with an official Android 4.2 Jellybean rom on it, just like the N880E has.

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Why can't HTC support both OS'?

P
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Paul, I wish HTC had the ability to do so, but current financial reports show that February 2013 was HTC's worst month for 3 years a mere NT$11.37 billion, or approximately $384 million.
That’s a 44 percent drop compared to February 2012, and a 26.8 percent drop since January 2013.

When you realise that is with the HTC 8X and 8S only just launched, why have they done so badly?
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James Norton
Mar 06 2013 10:12 PM

The Jones, I'm actually going to disagree with you on several points, plus I'm curious why you have omitted Sony from your article.


Some really interesting points there and I certainly welcome counter opinions to my own. However, this was not meant to suggest which manufacturer could challenge the Apple, Samsung duopoly but rather to suggest what I think it will take to do so. I strongly agree that Sony are in a really interesting position at the moment with a seemingly very strong product range but I would ask, is Playstation Mobile offering an experience which is significantly superior to any other platform? If not, then I would argue that it is doomed to be relatively niche.

I am a lover of Windows Phone 8 and I own a Nokia Lumia 620. It is easily the best budget phone I have ever used. The problem Microsoft and Nokia have is that they need to make quantum leaps forward in Windows Phone development and offer something far superior to Android and iOS to get the average consumer to sit up and take notice. Android manufacturers can benefit from the natural platform lock-in that occurs, Microsoft and Nokia don't have that benefit. If Windows 9 or any future Nokia Lumia device is indeed that leap, I will be the first person rushing out to buy the latest and greatest Windows Phone device.
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everett_psycho
Mar 06 2013 10:24 PM
I wouldn't say the nexus 4 is a disaster, dchspa is plenty fast enough for the next 12-24 months most will have the phone for. You need to keep in mind while we are rolling out 4g soon globally it's still not mature and it seems to be limited on the frequencies phones can support, I'd much rather pay £280 and get the full 42mbps now than pay £500 like the 4g phones that are out now and sit on that speed for the next 8 months until my network rolls it out.

The biggest annoyance with the nexus is it shows lgs biggest flaw, look at this lovely phone with Google software working nicely when our own phones are struggling to run the same os
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Well you can be the best because your technology offering is simply far superior to anyone's elses, and visibly so, apple a few years ago. Or you can be the best because you find effective ways to articulate that to the audience, advertising, and that's what Microsoft and blackberry need to do at the current technology level.
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I think this analysis forgets one of the most obvious ways to gain market share, in particular in a market where the pace of innovation is slowing down and there is no big difference between the different offers: PRICE! I guess that will be exactly the area in which the chinese competitors ZTE and Huawei will continue to attack in. Other big companies have also shown that they will differentiate themself on price, see Google and their Nexus offerings, which substantially lowered the price tag for what can be considered a high-end device. But also keep an eye on Amazon, which already entered the tablet market on the basis of low device prices.
On the software end of things the most interesting development to watch will be whether the likes of Firefox OS will manage to push plattform independent apps (at least as the third option for app developers, i.e. apps being developed for iOS, Android, and then plattform independent for the rest, rather than separately for a handful of niche systems). If that succeeds, than Firefox OS (and maybe others) will most likely again try to compete on price with simple web-devices without too much inbuilt features.
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unrandomsam
Mar 10 2013 09:17 PM

I'd argue that cellphone cameras are more than "good enough" and have been for a while now on any even moderately upper-end phone, people wanting to use it AS a camera, should get a proper camera or you'll be forever stuck with fixed apertures, fixed zoom and disappointing optics due to the size of the lenses themselves. Adding more megapixels is not the answer, they're hitting physical limitations unless they find way to shove more light at a higher quality into a ~3mm lens.

Android is "too hard" for many people but more powerful/versatile for those who can grasp it. The issues with OS updates need to be addressed, but I doubt it's going to happen any time soon, if ever, in any useful fashion. The Windows phone UI is much more intuitive for basic functions, but quite obtuse for many things and limited in customisability. The same can be said of iOS to an extent, which is both a good thing & bad thing when viewed from different angles, but it makes up for it in the oft quoted number of available apps and ubiquitousness of the devices. It is all about compromises, power versus simplicity, functionality versus battery life and/or size. To a certain extent, it's about brand acceptance, hence the popularity of the iDevices which has waned as they've become so commonplace as to be almost a Volksfone. Taken to extremes this results in fanboyism which again has it's pros & cons both for the brand and the product.

Innovation has been fairly stagnant for the past couple of years with any new models being largely iterative in both design and function. Do we need "the next big thing", or do people just want to be able to use their phone for more than a day between charges? Be able to see the screen in bright sunlight? Take recognisable photos of non-static objects? Addressing the basics might not be great for marketing, but is it needed more than some showstopping new feature? Can we even conceive what that might be beyond a totally new OS?


The Symbian Based 808 (The one with the massive sensor). Compares fairly well to stand alone cameras afaict.
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unrandomsam
Mar 10 2013 09:29 PM

Well you can be the best because your technology offering is simply far superior to anyone's elses, and visibly so, apple a few years ago. Or you can be the best because you find effective ways to articulate that to the audience, advertising, and that's what Microsoft and blackberry need to do at the current technology level.


In that case Intel will win whenever they feel like it.

(The next gen atom with out of order execution put it in the best process (Not the ancient ones like they have been doing).

If you look at the cost of the existing Intel medfield at ~ £100

and put another £100 worth of intel tech into it (With Intel doing it as best they can).

Android on a surface pro would be tons faster than any Android tablet existing today.

If Apple manage to get Intel building their chips on the latest process (Arm or not) then no one else will be able to compete. (Samsung might be able to if they stopped investing in screens / flash and put all the money into processors. Dunno if they could afford to match Intel's investment as well. No one else has a chance.)

Those 32 core mips chips if someone put one of those in a tablet that may be interesting also.
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I do not think quicker processors are what is most needed in phones. The reason arm and not intel have dominated the mobile market, is because of energy efficiency. No point of having a quicker phone that runs out of battery after 4-5 hours.
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