The Smartphone Wars Begin

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HTC released its latest flagship smartphone, the One (M8), this past weekend, setting up 2014 to be the year the smartphone gets more “did-up” than “re-did.” Reviews so far have been extremely positive for the One (M8); Engaget called it a “fantastic phone,” but a bit of a dud in how iterative it is: “The biggest challenge facing the M8 is that it doesn’t raise the bar much higher than the M7 did when it came out—and that’s going to make it difficult to stand apart from competing devices like the Galaxy S5. Yes, Samsung’s upcoming flagship is an iterative improvement as well, but for better or worse, the company will still sell millions of units while HTC’s success remains uncertain.”

In other words, HTC needed a game changer, and no one’s quite sure if that’ll be the new One. For the record, HTC makes excellent phones, but has trouble selling units—owning only 2.5% of the global market share in mid-2013. I checked out one briefly yesterday and will do a full review soon, but what I saw, I loved. Most reviewers tend to agree. The last One, the M7, got great reviews as well. So why didn’t it sell?

Part of it must be due to Apple’s hold on the U.S. market share, and Samsung/LG’s hold globally. But beyond that, customers aren’t given a reason to switch their phones because the smartphone seems to be pretty close to its evolutionary end. These companies are all releasing “iterations”—the next One, the next Galaxy, the next iPhone—and they all do basically the same as the last iteration, but maybe faster with a new processor or prettier with a better display or a better camera.

Since they all can text, call, and e-mail, brand identities and marketing are starting to become really important. (I wrote a while ago about what your choice in smartphone says about you.) HTC is made and marketed for music maniacs: The new One has the trademark larger speakers at the top and bottom of the phone, a new radio app, and a few other things in the mix that’ll be revealed later. Samsung’s GS5, with its built-in heart rate monitor and FitGear release in April, is tailor-made for the quantitative, fit guy. And Apple is, well, Apple. Just rumors on the iPhone 6 as of now—but because of that built-in hype machine and customer loyalty, you can bet it’ll sell bonkers even if it’s a tin can and a string. Not to mention the Sony Xperia Z2 or Google Nexus 5. There are insane features to all these phones—and dangerous-ish ones (Carplay, looking at you)—but at the end of the day, they’re iterations. Customers need a better reason to switch.

With the 2014 mobile wars underway, many people are left wondering what’s next. Are we doomed to a yearly release of iterations, or will somebody try to make something new and interesting? Phablets seem promising… sorta. Hard to say who will step up, though I look forward to trying out both the One and the GS5. There’s an undeniable newness/cutting-edge factor in there that people love (shiny!) and I’m not immune. So it begins.

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