CCS: Smartphone innovation 'appears to have peaked' after IFA 2016

The Huawei Nova was one of the smartphones unveiled at IFA 2016. Image: Huawei

Variations among smartphones have been on the decline recently, leading CCS Insight, for one, to utter dire warnings like “smartphone innovation appears to have peaked.” The recent IFA show in Berlin highlighted that theme, as most mid-tier smartphones pulled neck and neck in key areas.

IFA 2016, which wraps up today, featured major product announcements from manufacturers like Huawei, Sony and Motorola. And yet attendees were underwhelmed, with CCS blisteringly calling the array “difficult to distinguish.”

“Speaking to attendees, there was palpable apathy toward new smartphone releases with numerous product announcements seemingly blurring into each other,” CCS Insight wrote in a recent analysis (sub. req.) of the problem.

That “sea of sameness” extended both aesthetically and functionally, CCS Insight wrote. The analysts noted that inside the similar metallic and glass finishes of the latest smartphones, most competitors are using rival chipsets, usually from Qualcomm or MediaTek.

And aside from obvious exceptions like Apple, practically all of these competitors are operating on Android 6.0 Marshmallow, with only minor variations still around in the form of “Android skins.”

For instance, of the five new smartphone models released by the three biggest manufacturers at the show, all employed a Qualcomm Snapdragon chipset, all started at 32 GB storage, all fell within a half inch of the 5-inch footprint, all employed aluminum and glass finishes and all launched with Android 6.0 Marshmallow.

  • Huawei's Nova and Nova Plus both carry a Qualcomm Snapdragon 625, a 12-megapixel camera, 32 GB of memory, 3GB of RAM and run Android 6.0. The Nova has a 5-inch screen while the Nova Plus' reaches 5.5-inch
  • Sony's Xperix XZ, a new flagship for the company, has a 5.2-inch screen, a Qualcomm Snapdragon 820 processor, 32 GB of storage, 3 GB of RAM, a 23-megapixel camera and runs Android 6.0
  • Sony's Xperia X compact phone has a 4.6-inch screen, a Qualcomm Snapdragon 650 processor, 32 GB of storage, 3 GB of RAM, a 23-megapixel camera and runs Android 6.0
  • Motorola's Z Play is a lower cost variant of its Z and Z Force devices. It has a 5.5-inch screen, a Qualcomm Snapdragon 625 processor,  32 GB of storage, 3 GB of RAM, a 16-megapixel camera and runs Android 6.0
Sony's newly unveiled Xperia XZ
(left) and X Compact (right)
Image: Sony

The phones' biggest differentiator was often the camera, which CCS argued was part of "manufacturers' desperate efforts to differentiate their devices."

CCS wasn't alone in feeling that sentiment. The Verge, trying to distinguish how manufacturers made their phones “feel unique,” ended up defaulting to the introduction of color options.

“As all phones start to approach parity in the way that they work, the obvious next step is to make each particular phone feel unique or in some way tailored to its user,” reporter Vlad Savov wrote. “Huawei’s other news at IFA was the introduction of dark red and blue colors for the P9. Not to be outdone, Sony introduced the Xperia XZ and X Compact with some utterly gorgeous color options.”

Motorola's Z Play and Hasselbad
True Zoom. Image: Motorola/
The smartphone market did see some innovation around the edges. Sony unveiled a concept for an Android-powered Xperia projector, which could see some play in the enterprise, and Motorola previewed a Hasselblad True Zoom Moto Mod, which adds an impressive optical zoom to a smartphone camera.

The result of that sameness is brutal, especially for smaller players in the market.

“CCS Insight's analyst team came away from IFA finding it difficult to distinguish between the numerous mid-tier Android smartphones announced at the event,” CCS Insight wrote. “Only Apple or those who have the necessary marketing firepower, such as Samsung and Huawei, are now able to stand out from the crowd.”

Indeed, CCS noted that even Sony's entry, while serving as a perfectly functional flagship, likely wouldn't be able to compete significantly outside Japan. The Xperia XZ "is unremarkable and unlikely to stand out versus other devices such as Samsung's Galaxy S7 and S7 edge and Huawei's P9," CCS wrote.

For more:
- see the CSS Insight analysis (sub. req.)
- read The Verge article

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