It’s common knowledge that differentiation is tough in the smartphone space, particularly for Android manufacturers targeting the high tier. Android is hugely successful in raw scale but beyond Samsung, it struggles in the most lucrative part of the market.
This is a problem for its partners as it creates a ceiling above which it becomes very difficult to differentiate and compete. For Google it means that the highest-value eyeballs are on iOS, rather than Android. It’s no coincidence that Google is increasing its hardware investment.
A $1.1 billion investment in HTC may assist its own hardware endeavors, but it’s often struck me that Google can and should do more to help partners. It’s in a unique position to galvanize its ecosystem, combine forces and communicate a clear message about the value of Android and Google services.
This is a tricky balancing act for Google. There is a clear incentive to work with partners to promote Android, but scale and reach are paramount. And for that it must be platform- and device-agnostic.
Highlighting a competitive advantage
Subsequently, in the past, Google has limited its efforts to support manufacturers in marketing, but this appears to be changing. In tandem with Qualcomm, Google is becoming far more direct (even provocative) in highlighting a competitive advantage: The “Gigabit LTE. Only on Android” campaign makes clear efforts to differentiate the Google experience.
Some background: Gigabit LTE is available only on Android smartphones. To date this includes more than 10 handsets from Asus, Essential, Samsung, Sharp, LG, Sony, HTC and Motorola, in addition to multiple MiFi devices that use the X16 modem. While Intel has announced the XMM 7560, it is not due to ship until 2018. This makes Qualcomm the leading gigabit LTE supplier with Samsung’s Exynos 8895 available in other select markets in the Galaxy S8 and Galaxy Note 8.
Why would Google choose to help partners differentiate on LTE Advanced Pro features? The short answer is speed, performance and capacity. Not to mention a better Google app experience on gigabit LTE devices.
Higher data rates and increased capacity
Where gigabit LTE is supported, it doesn’t necessarily mean that users will consistently receive gigabit-class speeds. What it should translate to (where gigabit LTE is available) is noticeably higher data rates. As more phones get out into the wild, this should also start to help carrier network efficiency and capacity which is critical as unlimited plans spur yet more data and, particularly, video consumption. As LAA also gets more widely deployed and carriers start to maximize unlicensed spectrum, those average speeds should start to increase as AT&T demonstrated in San Francisco in June with speeds in excess of 750 Mbps.
While the counter argument is that gigabit LTE has limited availability, it assumes that carrier investment is static. The first carrier to launch gigabit LTE was Telstra in Australia in January 2017. In just 9 months, this has grown to 40 carriers in 24 countries either deploying or testing the technology (including all four U.S. carriers) with more than 10 supporting manufacturers.
The network availability argument also ignores the advantages of having four antennas, which has benefits in areas of weak cellular coverage. This is independent of network upgrades, and it’s a big deal in environments such as large office buildings, commercial venues, shopping malls, etc., where two extra antennas result in a better connection and fewer dropped calls.
Google and its partners have found ways to differentiate premium Android devices. “Gigabit LTE” will mean little to most consumers, but they understand speed and what that means for applications. Google emphasizes that speed improvements means seamless access to Google Drive, Google Photos and a buffer free streaming experience for YouTube and Google Play Music. As consumption increases with the advent of unlimited data, gigabit LTE becomes increasingly important.
A potentially ‘future-proof’ purchase
There’s also a strong argument that gigabit LTE is a “future-proof” purchase. With the real cost of devices becoming more transparent and carrier network investment ramping up, a gigabit LTE device will be able to take advantage of network upgrades as they become available.
This challenges the consensus on the features that define the premium tier of the smartphone market. In doubling down on gigabit LTE, Google is helping the ecosystem grasp a valuable point of differentiation.
Geoff Blaber is vice president of research for the Americas at CCS Insight. Based in California, Blaber heads CCS Insight’s Americas business and supports the range of clients located in this territory. Blaber's research focus spans a broad spectrum of mobility and technology, including the lead role in semiconductors. He is a well-known member of the analyst community and provides regular commentary to leading news organizations such as Reuters, the Financial Times and The Economist. You can follow him on Twitter @geoffblaber.