Manufacturers struggling to stand out in the mobile-obsessed tech industry, says Jason Jenkins
Jenkins says Android operating system contributes to "sameness"
Phone makers including more power, but he questions whether consumers need it
Editor’s Note: Jason Jenkins is editor of technology site CNET UK
The tech industry is currently all about mobile. Smartphones are seeing huge growth, and there are a huge number of players trying to get a slice of the money consumers are spending. Mobile World Congress in Barcelona is the one big opportunity for companies to show off the models they are hoping will capture the imagination of customers.
Like last year, the show belongs to Google. Almost all of the hot smart phones announced here run Android, Google’s phone operating system that is making a decent fist of competing with the other main player in this space, Apple’s iPhone.
The trouble is, if your company makes mobile phones, it can be hard to stand out from the crowd. Manufacturers are trying several ways to stand out at MWC this year, from a phone that becomes a tablet when you slide it into a separate dock, to a tablet you can draw on using a specially designed pen via a phone that has a projector inside it.
To make the sameness worse, Android is designed so that anyone can take the software, put it on their phone and that it will work with the same experience. To try to avoid their products becoming commoditized, manufacturers have been customizing the software to make their mobiles feel different to the competition.
This has been a mostly bad strategy as it has meant that, whenever Google has issued an update to the Android software, it has taken ages for the new version to make it through to ordinary consumers, and customers have been complaining in droves. Companies seem to have learned their lesson though, keeping the tweaks to their new models to a minimum.
The other big trend is more mobile power. Quad-core processors are appearing inside all the manufacturers’ high-end models, which gives them more speed than a typical computer from a few years ago.
Whether consumers actually need all this power is an open question, but it opens the door to more exciting, realistic-looking games to appear on mobiles in the future.
Trade shows are great levelers. If your product is good enough, you can make a big impact even if you are a small or unknown company. Huawei is one such company that could be giving the likes of Sony, Samsung and HTC some problems in the future, another is ZTE.
Both have announced some high-end models that can easily compete with the very best in the industry, and they should be cheap too. Expect to hear more from these players in the future.
But the star of the show is undoubtedly Nokia, which has stolen the headlines with the announcement of a mobile with a 41-megapixel camera – that’s significantly more megapixels than in most cameras people own.
The idea is that it gives much better quality shots when you zoom in compared to a normal camera phone, which matters because there is no room for a big zoom lens on a typical mobile.
The only downside is that it is running Symbian, the platform Nokia is in the process of dumping, rather than its operating system of choice, Windows Phone. But as a great show story, it can’t be beaten.
The elephant in the room is Apple. The company doesn’t exhibit at Mobile World Congress, preferring to create buzz around its own events. But it still feels like it’s everywhere. As yet, only Samsung has had much success in competing with Apple at the high end, but they are all watching what Apple does with interest and keeping their fingers crossed for a monster hit.
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Jason Jenkins