MWC 2012: Clear Android Differentiation and Other Trends

by Ben Bajarin   |   February 27th, 2012

I suspect that each MWC will be better than the last. This show, I believe, is quickly becoming the leading industry conference for mobile smart device technologies. Therefore, Mobile World Congress will be one of the shows were we can expect to dig into the trends of our mobile computing tomorrow. On that point, this year a few things stand out.

Android Differentiation
Bloggers, journalists, some pundits, etc, mostly seem to believe the world would be a better place if Google’s OEM partners simply did not change Android and just shipped a stock OS the likes of the Nexus line of devices. Unfortunately in that reality hardware companies go out of business. Therefore differentiation is key if pure hardware players hope to stay in business.

Related Column: Dear Industry Dare to Differentiate

After seeing many of the Android device announcements from the leaders like Samsung and HTC, it is clear they are fully marching down the path of strategically differentiating from the pack. This I believe is a good thing all together.

Samsung for example is taking a stab with their Galaxy Note line of products at differentiating their device experience by pairing it with a companion pen experience. HTC did something similar with the Flyer but has seemed to have abandoned that path for now. For Samsung however, including the pen as an accessory (which is where it belongs) has opened the door to bundling exclusive and proprietary software in order to enhance the pen experience. Samsung is shipping with the Galaxy Note Phone (I refuse to support the Phablet term), and the Galaxy Note 10.1 tablet, Adobe’s touch suite of products like Photoshop and Ideas. Samsung is also including their own S Note application for note taking and other useful pen experiences. Samsung is wisely using this strategy as a key differentiator and if you watch any screen media you will see their marketing is fully committed to this direction.

HTC has also been going down this path and has now furthered their strategy even more with the new Sense 4.0 UI.

Beyond Samsung, pen accessories at large seem to be a trend around Android tablets. LG announced their Optimus VU with a pen accessory and I expect pen accessories to continue to be used as a differentiator for the time being.

It is clear at this point there will be no stock Android prioritized devices by the OEMs, thus I question the market at all for Nexus devices. Throw on top of that the fact that the stock Android devices running the latest release take over a year to roll out in any large fashion. John Gruber makes a great observation:

Best to think of today’s Ice Cream Sandwich as a developer preview of next year’s mass market Android phones.

Focus on Device Family Brands
The other trend I am noticing, which is also a positive sign, is that HTC and Samsung for example are focusing more on family lines of devices. Peter Chou of HTC during their press conference announced that HTC intends to streamline their roadmap and focus HTC innovations. HTC kicked this off by releasing a new family line of devices called the One “series.” Their flagship product is the HTC One X which sports the latest Tegra 3 chipset from NVIDIA.

Samsung also is heading this direction with the Galaxy S series, Tab family and now with the Galaxy Note. Motorola also hopefully continues this direction with the Razr family. And Nokia as well with their Lumia line of devices. This direction is needed within the industry in order to stop the absurd device naming syndrome that has plagued many OEMs. When you have dozens of devices in channel all with different names and marketing material blitzing consumers with dozens of device names etc, the landscape can look incredibly confusing.

By focusing on a family line of devices, OEMs can differentiation and then position those differentiating features within a family line of devices for their appropriate target audience.

All in all, I am seeing some positive trends coming out of MWC 2012 that encourages me about the state of healthy competition within the mobile smart devices landscape.

Ben Bajarin

Ben Bajarin is a Principal Analyst at Creative Strategies, Inc - An industry analysis, market intelligence and research firm located in Silicon Valley. His primary focus is consumer technology and market trend research. He is a husband, father, gadget enthusiast, trend spotter, early adopter and hobby farmer. Full Bio
  • Alfiejr

    well, Ben, you’re certainly right about the major OEM’s finally adopting device “family” branding. but you leave out the most important reasons for this.

    first, for the OEM’s to take back control of their identity from the telcos which have always dominated with their own branding of everyone’s hardware instead, turning them all into under-appreciated commodity products.

    and second, even more important, to lay the groundwork for their own multi-product “ecosystems” of in-house services, apps, cloud, etc. that all the big OEM’s have finally realized are essential for future competitiveness in higher-value markets. Samsung, LG, and Sony are already trying, not coincidentally because they are major HDTV OEM’s too, and Nokia hopes to hitch a ride with MS …

    • benbajarin

      Thanks for sharing. A few month’s ago I went into depth in a column on channel strategy in-efficiencies where I laid out most of your first point.

      http://techpinions.com/why-the-android-update-alliance-was-doomed-from-the-start/4595

      To your second point, I call this publicly competing in the sea of sameness. It is very difficult for every one but Apple. Again pointing out the difference in vertical vs horizontal strategies.

      Thanks for your thoughts.

  • http://twitter.com/kpgalligan Kevin Galligan

    I disagree that “differentiating” the android experience is a good thing. With little (or no) exception, the changes are a negative, and obviously slow down or stop the update process. Motorola doesn’t even have an estimate for when many of their promised ICS updates will be coming out. I don’t think the argument that they *need* to do this holds. You could make the same argument about Windows PCs and Dell, HP, etc. While you might argue that they have seen better days, and HP and others did take periodic stabs at branding the “experience”, its a far cry from the defacing that happens on Android phones, and to call Dell/HP/etc as failures in the windows PC market would be crazy. They did manage to differentiate themselves while still delivering “Windows” machines.

    The only “enhanced” UI that I’ve consistently heard positive things about is the HTC Sense ui, but I still personally prefer stock. Motorola and Samsung’s UI changes were terrible and only distracted from the phone. Motorola’s in particular. The moto phones also tend to be buggy. I switched from t-mobile/G2 to verizon/Bionic last year. Worst phone “upgrade” I’ve ever had. Literally. Hated it. Bought the Galaxy nexus at full price to switch.

    I do Android dev, though, so I tend to switch phones pretty quickly anyway, but the bionic was a disaster.

    • benbajarin

      The market is very different today then it was when the market was maturing and a horizontal vanilla “standard” OS / UI was needed to help drive the market to maturity. Now the market is fragmenting and is becoming more segmented because it is mature and moving to post maturity.

      Because of that differentiation through proprietary software and services will be the only areas a pure hardware company can add value. If they are forced to compete only on hardware specs and all the devices software is identical, then price is the only factor for most consumers. I say most consumers not early adopters. Most consumers the “Bob and Betty” in Kansas I call them, look for specific things of value to them, mostly not in specs or in hardware but in personal preference.

      This history of this industry with every hardware segment has time and again followed the same curve. In the beginning value is in hardware, then it shifts to software, then to services. Once it is in services hardware is commoditized and there are no true hardware players but instead the shift to vertical-ization happens because of this historical truth.

      The same thing is happening now as the value is shifting away from the hardware in smart phones and eventually tablets as well. The value is now in software, mostly, and soon it will move to services even more.

      The sea of sameness which is what you get with a vanilla OS works in enterprise and in consumer markets as consumers flesh out their personal preferences. It does not work however once the market fragments and consumers needs, preferences, wants, desires etc. Become more preferential.

      Just look at the car market. Look at the variety and differentiation in different lines of cars / brands. Variety is the spice of life.

      • http://twitter.com/kpgalligan Kevin Galligan

        I think what I’m contending here is not “the story”, but the gulf between what’s actually happening and “the story”. I’ve heard this quite a bit, and I’m sure its being proposed and perpetuated by the hardware manufacturers. “You can’t complete on hardware”, “differentiate”, “software/services”, etc. I get it. My issue is that they’re just “building stuff”. The software and services being added AREN’T ADDING VALUE. That’s my point. They’re bad. Differentiating and competing with software/services imply that they add value. Consumers are uninformed at the moment, and I feel like everybody (except Apple, and believe me, I am NOT an Apple fan) tried to capitalize on consumer ignorance rather than actually improving things.

        Examples.

        Motorola, Samsung, and HTC add their proprietary layer on top of Android, but I personally perceive no real value add. In most cases the changes are simply UI shuffles. I’ve *occasionally* heard positive things about Sense, but otherwise, its just a distraction. The bionic, for example, added more clicks to move app icons around than stock android, and often when you long-press home to go back to a different app, it would give an error. The moto UI adds no value, and actually removes it. When I got my phone, it had 3 pages of apps, all preinstalled by either Moto or Verizon, and you couldn’t delete them. *Not adding value*.

        I’m not sure about current samsung phones, but the last consumer one I had (non-nexus phones), actually had a different contact manager. Not only was the organization bad, but it didn’t default to keeping syncing contacts in gmail. Verizon defaulted to using their “backup service” instead of gmail as well for contacts with the Bionic. None of this adds value, just confusion.

        My favorite “value add” was something motorola installed and touted pretty hard. Some app/service that lets you stream stuff from your home computer. What the hell is that? I can see if you don’t “get” technology how that would sound like a nice feature, but if you have any tech understanding, you’d see pretty easily how much of a mess that would be.

        What about Android phones with Bing or Yahoo built in? I think you could count on 1 hand the number of consumers who really considered that positive.

        I don’t agree with the absolutes, that hardware companies can’t compete on “just hardware”. Especially in this environment, the irony is that since everybody is gunking up their devices with buggy crap, you probably could do well if you just made a really nice, clean device. That, of course, will not last, but I don’t think that automatically means you go out of business. my point about dell/hp is that they did successfully compete for years. Things seem to be unwinding now, but I don’t think we’re anywhere near that phase of mobile devices.

        As for the “services” thing, I get it. I think everybody is repeating that, and everybody believes it, and I’m not saying its wrong. What I am saying is that it seems like the phone OEMs hear the notes but not the tune, if you know what I mean. Some very high-up exec said “make differentiating software and services”, then went to play golf. The people in the org went ahead and did that. The direction should be “differentiate, but add real value”.

        Consumers really don’t know much about the market, but eventually word gets around. Or not. We’ll see.

        • benbajarin

          You make a lot of points I can’t disagree with. I do think there are some very nice value adds in Sense especially with the new version as well. I actually tend to like many of the HTC specific apps like email for example and a few others.

          You are correct though that it has to add value to the experience. I just don’t want to see a lot of me too devices that simply clutter the sea of sameness. I know I am asking for too much but I will continue to challenge the industry to differentiate.

          Thanks again for commenting I appreciate the dialogue.