Emerging accessories: What are the most innovative handset embellishments?

According to research firm Strategy Analytics, handset makers around the world shipped 350 million units in the first quarter. That's a lot of phones--and 17 percent year-over-year growth, according to Strategy Analytics--and many of those phones are likely paired with at least one accessory.  

The mainstays of wireless accessories--Bluetooth headsets, cases and the like--are not going to fade from view any time soon, analysts said. In fact, those accessories are probably going to remain top sellers for years. However, a new crop of mobile accessories is hitting the market, and their designers want them to eventually be the vanguard of mobile accoutrements--as seamless and ubiquitous as an iPhone 4 bumper case, post-Antennagate. 

"There are some interesting new options in the market," said NPD Group analyst Ross Rubin. "But the bread and butter of the category still is very strong." That said: "As handsets sprout more features and can do more things, it has opened the door for new accessories."

However, the accessory market will encounter its share of obstacles. Accessory makers face the same pressures to innovate as handset makers do. "What I'm seeing is that accessories need to add something that may not necessarily belong in a phone or they may need to work with the technology in the phone," said ABI Research analyst Michael Morgan.

With that in mind, FierceWireless took a look at some of the most innovative, compelling and defining accessories that are emerging onto the wireless playground. These are the gadgets that are stretching the bounds of the industry, and likely defining future waves of handset extras:

Apple's Smart Cover
Apple smart cover
Apple's Smart Cover has a self-aligning magnetic hinge that attaches to the iPad 2.

Apple (NASDAQ:AAPL) introduced its Smart Cover accessory in March along with the iPad 2, and while it's difficult to say how many Smart Covers Apple has sold so far, Apple sold 4.7 million iPads in its most recent quarter, and Apple CFO Peter Oppenheimer said Apple "sold every iPad 2 that we could make during the quarter."

The Smart Cover has a self-aligning magnetic hinge that attaches to the iPad 2, and wakes up the iPad when the cover is removed and puts it to sleep when the cover is closed. The Smart Cover also doubles as a stand for the iPad 2 when it is folded back.

"It solves a real need to prop up the tablet at different angles," said Current Analysis analyst Avi Greengart. "It's unobstructive in that it doesn't add much thickness or weigh to the product. It's ridiculously easy to remove."

ABI's Morgan said a way for the Smart Cover concept to evolve in the years ahead as other OEMs try and take advantage of the tablet accessory market is to have a tablet cover double as a keyboard when it folds out. "Sooner or later I can see someone coming with a keyboard cover that opens and has an almost credit-card-thin wireless mouse," he said. The post-PC era indeed.

Motorola's docks
Motorola laptop doc
Motorola's laptop dock allows Atrix users to power a laptop with their smartphone via Motorola's Webtop application.


Executives from Motorola Mobility (NYSE:MMI) have repeatedly argued that the docks concept they introduced is the future of mobile computing, and that the company is leading the charge as mobile computing evolves. Currently, Motorola's docks encompass three distinct use cases: a car dock for personal navigation, an HD multimedia dock and a laptop dock, which sports a full key board and Motorola's Webtop Firefox-powered Internet browsing application.

The docks only work with Motorola's Atrix smartphone right now, but Motorola has said it will release more smartphones later this year that are compatible with the Webtop application. The company has hinted that it might expand on the Webtop experience to give users more functionality and make it similar to a desktop experience.

Analysts generally agreed that the dock concept is intriguing but somewhat ahead of its time, since most people do not yet use smartphones as complete replacements for their computing needs. "It's an intriguing concept," Rubin said. "In some ways it is an alternative to the idea behind the tablet or what RIM is doing with the PlayBook," he added, referring to the ability to move content from a smartphone and place it on a larger screen.

For other companies to follow in Motorola's footsteps, Greengart said, they will have evolve the concept. "If someone else wants to go that route, if all they want to do is create a dock, they are going to have to go considerably further," he said.

Wireless charging pads
Powermat wireless charging
Powermat offers wireless charging pads.

There are around half a dozen serious players in the wireless charging business, which is set to gain in popularity and market share in the years ahead, analysts said.

One of the key players is Powermat (a 2010 Fierce 15 winner), which makes both wireless charging mats and receivers, and arguably has the most visibility in the industry. Another player is Duracell, which has a similar solution called myGrid. Both companies have signed letters of intent to work with Qualcomm (NASDAQ:QCOM) on developing an industry alliance to work on wireless charging solutions. (Meantime, Qualcomm is promoting is own "WiPower" technology, which is a new, near-field magnetic resonance technology.)

Separately, the Wireless Power Consortium has been busy finalizing the Qi wireless charging standard, and has signed up 81 mobile companies to support the standard to promote interoperability. One of the Consortium's members is Energizer, which has its own inductive charger.

In addition, Hewlett-Packard is promoting its Touchstone inductive charging technology, which it scooped up when it bought Palm in 2010. A key differentiator for HP is that its technology works out of the box.      

"Qi seems to be the one with the most momentum or broadest support, whereas Powermat is the market leader," Rubin said.

"It will be important that OEMs start incorporating this out of box with a standard," Morgan said. "What's going to drive the popularity of this is not the handsets."

For wireless charging pads to reach even more people, analysts said, the ideal scenario is to have the technology in place at airports and even built into furniture, something likely in the far future.

Pico projectors
lg expo pico projector
LG's eXpo features a pico projector.

Pico projectors have been around since 2003, and the technology has slowly been migrating into the mobile world. As smartphones have become ever more powerful, and have the ability to store and share more HD media, the idea of pico projectors has taken on more resonance.

In late 2009, AT&T Mobility (NYSE:T) launched the LG eXpo, the first gadget to sport a 1 GHz Snapdragon process from Qualcomm (NASDAQ:QCOM). For an additional $180, the phone also came with an optional, snap-on pico projector that could project images up to eight feet.

Since then, the technology hasn't exactly been invading the mobile market, but analysts said it has the potential to do so. "Every time I talk to the folks who manufacture the components, the components have shrunk in size, risen in lumens and lowered in power consumption," Greengart said. "It's almost there for mass market."

Rubin said it depends  on how small the pico projectors get and how much of a use case there is for them. "The question is, is it the kind of functionality where consumers are going to use it so often that there is an incentive for building it in?"

HDMI cables
hdmi calbes
HDMI cables allow smartphone owners to connect their devices to TVs and other large- screen gadgets.

An increasing number of smartphones sport built-in HDMI capabilities. HDMI--which stands for High-Definition Multimedia Interface--allows smartphones to, among other things, transmit media onto larger screens, such as computer monitors and TVs.

To do so right now, most smartphones have to use an HDMI cable to attach to the larger screen. Rubin pointed out the Samsung and LG have an incentive to add this functionality to their smartphones--both companies have major businesses building TVs.

However, analysts see the potential for other wireless technologies to supplant the cable as the primary mode of HDMI connectivity. Greengart pointed to both DLNA technology and Apple's (NASDAQ:AAPL) AirPlay protocol as examples.


Emerging accessories: What are the most innovative handset embellishments?