Why did 3D smartphones die on the vine?

Phil Goldstein

I remember vividly in 2011 when LG Electronics took the wraps off its first 3D smartphone, the Optimus 3D, at Mobile World Congress. I was skeptical. Sure, Avatar was great, but why would I want to watch 3D content on my phone? After all, 3D TVs seemed like an expensive and unnecessary fad. I was not that impressed.

Yet the Optimus 3D came anyway, and it was followed not long thereafter by HTC's Evo 3D. There were also a handful of other 3D smartphones, but none of them ever really galvanized the mass market. It was largely a gimmick, and the market knew it.

Does that mean that LG, HTC and others were wrong to pursue 3D smartphone technology in the first place? I don't think so, but I do think that the strategy was poorly conceived. 3D technology--or any new technology for that matter--is best positioned to succeed when it enjoys support from a wide array of players that are willing to invest time and money to make the technology viable.

I think the word "ecosystem" is overused in the industry (don't get me started on "space"), but in this instance, I think 3D phones would have benefited from a broader ecosystem--for content, specifically. If carriers and OEMs had done the ground work beforehand to work with developers on creating scores of immersive 3D games and applications, and then promoted those heavily, perhaps 3D phones would have had a better chance at success.

What does the general failure of 3D smartphones mean for the broader industry? Although Carriers, device makers, network vendors and developers should always be reaching for the latest and greatest technologies, I do think that 3D phones present a cautionary tale for carriers and OEMs looking to cash in on trendy new technologies before they have fully matured. For example, Near Field Communications for mobile payments could suffer the same fate as 3D smartphones if vendors don't create an adequate ecosystem to back it up.

The bottom line is that use cases for new technologies, especially ones designed for devices with 4-inch or 5-inch screens, need to be actually, well, useful. If a carrier or vendor cannot speedily and cogently provide an answer for why a technology is necessary in a new device, especially when it is the main marketing point for the device, it's probably a good idea to leave it on the vine to ripen. That's a better alternative than making it die on the vine.

For a look at why the market for 3D smartphones got so hot and then cooled off so quickly, check out this special feature on the topic. --Phil