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VIEWPOINT: The smartphone war - who is calling the shots?

Published on Feb 27, 2014 6:00 AM
A man looks at a mobile device during the 2014 Mobile World Congress in Barcelona on February 26, 2014

Samsung's latest Galaxy S5 smartphone unveiled on Monday sports more bells and whistles than last year's Galaxy S4. But will it revolutionise the smartphone market here?

Not really, going by comments from analysts that the improvements the S5 has over its predecessor are just incremental enhancements.

"I don't think I would call the S5 a game changer. A lot of things have improved but they are fairly marginal. The phone is also copying some things (from competitors)," said Mr Marc Einstein, an industry principal for information and communication technologies research at research firm Frost & Sullivan.

The S5 - announced in Barcelona on the first day of the four-day Mobile World Congress, the world's largest mobile trade show - has a slightly larger 5.1-inch full high-definition (HD) screen compared with the S4's 5-inch full HD screen.

The new Samsung Galaxy S5 smartphone (left), Gear 2 smartwatch (centre) and Gear Fit fitness band are displayed at the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona Feb 23, 2014. -- FILE PHOTO: REUTERS

The S5 also has a faster 2.5GHz quad-core Snapdragon 801 processor. The S4 runs on a 1.9GHz quad-core Snapdragon 600 chip.

The phone will be available in Singapore in April.

Some new features in the S5 can also be found in existing phones, namely a fingerprint reader that Apple iPhone 5s, which was launched last year, sports, as well as water resistance which can be found in Sony's Xperia Z and Z1 phones from last year.

Who is likely to buy Galaxy S5?

Even so, Mr Einstein believes the S5 will still do well here. "I don't think people would ditch their iPhones for this. Apple users are fiercely loyal. But I think people that already have a Galaxy S III or S4 would probably upgrade to an S5."

He added that the S5 might also entice users of Android phones from other brands.

And getting existing Samsung customers to upgrade would be a big deal. According to smartphone shipment figures to Singapore from research firm IDC, Samsung was in pole position last year, with a 49 per cent market share. Apple was No. 2 with 28 per cent of the market.

In Singapore, Vietnam, Cambodia and the Philippines, some US$3.26 billion (S$4.12 billion) worth of smartphones were bought in the first nine months of last year, according to research firm GfK.

Analysts say Samsung's new phone is likely to sell well in Singapore because of the South Korean electronics giant's successful branding and marketing strategy. Samsung has the largest market share here - an estimated 49 per cent last year compared to Apple's 28 per cent.

And it is likely to retain its lead because it is becoming increasing difficult for phone makers to come up with a product that stands out from the crowd in terms of hardware design.

Software is the new battleground

Ms Melissa Chau, senior research manager for client devices at IDC Asia Pacific, said that it is becoming less and less likely for hardware innovation to come about as the smartphone market has reached a level of maturity in which the competition is less on hardware but more on software and services.

So, with not much hardware differentiation between the many phones now, including Samsung's S5, this bodes well for the South Korean electronics giant in Singapore, Ms Chau noted.

"It means that Samsung is probably still going to be sitting in a very comfortable position because it does have the highest brand awareness, marketing budget and market power with operator partners to offer good deals, compared to a lot of competitors," she said.

"So I don't expect Samsung's market dominance to change this year, unless someone else comes up with something extremely innovative that we haven't seen yet."

The next big thing: from "gorilla" to "sapphire"?

That someone might include Apple. Mr Jake Saunders, vice-president of forecasting at ABI Research, noted that there is talk that the iPhone maker is preparing to use sapphire glass to adorn the front of its next generation of iDevices, which could include the rumoured iPhone 6.

Sapphire glass, which is even more scratch resistant than the popular Gorilla Glass that protects many mobile gadgets, could make Apple's next device "very distinctive", said Mr Saunders.

Apple is also still relevant because of its strong suite of software, said Ms Chau. This includes software that allows the synchronisation of digital content across multiple Apple devices in an easy way for users.

A staff of a China Mobile shop explains a function of the iPhone 5s to a customer in Beijing January 17, 2014. -- FILE PHOTO: REUTERS

But Samsung is not one to ignore the importance of software and services, the new battleground for phone manufacturers.

Ms Chau said that while the company has not made great strides in hardware with the S5 over the S4, the incremental improvements Samsung introduced can be significant and even change user behaviour.

An example would be the S5's fingerprint sensor. Samsung had announced a tie-up with PayPal, in which a user could make online payments securely via PayPal on the S5 by using the sensor to scan his fingerprints to authorise payments.

Ms Chau said this demonstrates a shift towards using software and service to differentiate, instead of simply just having a fingerprint sensor to, say, unlock the phone.

While Apple already has a fingerprint reader in the iPhone 5s, the sensor is used to authorise payments for apps and other content in the iTunes Store and App Store, and has not been extended to other online shopping sites.

Thinking harder about its software strategies is "something Samsung is already well aware of", said Ms Chau, noting past efforts by the company. "But I don't think Samsung has found a strong formula yet."

Background story

What’s hot: Go big is the buzzword for new smartphones

Big is the word that is going around these days for smartphone makers, with handset screens often hitting 5-inches or more.

The Straits Times looks at some of the latest smartphones unveiled by major phone makers that coincide with the Mobile World Congress, the world’s biggest mobile trade show held in Barcelona from Monday to Thursday.

Nokia’s “Windroid” phones

Nokia, the champion of Microsoft’s Windows Phone operating system, did an about turn and unveiled its first Android phones on Monday.
The trio of handsets – the X, X+ and XL – from the Finnish company run on a modified version of Google’s Android operating system, and eschew Google’s online services for Microsoft ones. Still, many Android apps are able to run on the handsets.

All three phones run on a 1GHz dual-core Qualcomm Snapdragon S4 processor. The X and X+ are similar and have 4-inch 480p screens, but the X+ has more memory and storage. The XL has a larger 5-inch 480p screen and a better 5 Megapixel camera than the 3 Megapixel one on the X and X+.

Sony phones in with ultra high-definition recording

Just less than half a year after it announced its Xperia Z1 phone, Japanese electronics giant Sony rolled out the new Xperia Z2 on Monday which trumps its predecessor with 4K video recording.

This means the 5.2-inch Z2 can take ultra high-definition (HD) videos that have four times the resolution of the full HD videos taken by last year’s Z1 handset. 

The Z2 is a waterproof Android phone with a 1080p screen and runs on a 2.3 GHz quad-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 801 processor.

HTC goes mid-range and plastic

The Taiwanese handset maker did not unveil details of its sequel to the HTC One at the Mobile World Congress. Instead, it introduced what it called a flagship mid-tier phone, the Desire 816.

The 5.5-inch Android smartphone borrows design cues from last year’s HTC One but, instead of a metal body, the Desire 816 has a glossy plastic body that reminds users of last year’s Apple iPhone 5c.

The Desire 816 has a 720p high-definition screen and runs on a 1.6GHz quad-core Snapdragon 400 processor.

LG goes bigger with phablet sequel

If last year’s LG G Pro was considered big at 5.5-inches, its follow-up, the G Pro 2 is even bigger. 

Unveiled on Sunday, the 5.9-inch Android phablet adds 4K video recording, not unlike Sony’s Xperia Z2. The G Pro 2’s camera also claims to have better image stabilisation than its predecessor.

The South Korean firm’s super-sized smartphone has a 1080p screen and runs on a 2.26GHz quad-core Snapdragon 800 processor.