Barcelona, Spain – Since the smartphone “Big Bang” almost a decade ago, most device advances have revolved around screen size, interface fluidity and camera quality. These hardware advancements have made possible many of the things we take for granted today. People can’t send 100 snaps a day without fast connections and processors. Instagram streams would move much slower if smartphones didn’t take gorgeous shots milliseconds after hitting the shutter. All of the advancements that made our most beloved apps so popular happened because of advancements in the high-end mobile phone market. However, the big takeaway from MWC 2017 was that the performance gap between high-end and mid-grade smartphones is closing rapidly… meaning a second app boom is just around the corner.
Yes, the latest and greatest were certainly on display from everyone’s favorite high-end brands. The Sony Xperia XZ Premium had a bombastic spec sheet that included a massive 4k resolution display with HDR capability. LG’s G6 unveiling was one of the most impressive big-screen, small-body phones at the show. HTC showed off its new flagship U Ultra device, which has been highly criticized for its price tag ($750+). These are the brands that dominate mindshare in the US, but to my surprise, there were several global players with much larger booths at the show than their US counterparts. This is where the real jaw-dropping product launches were on display.
It started in 2013, when Motorola announced the original Moto G, a product that redefined the quality of a $200 phone. In 2014, with the high-profile release OnePlus’ the One, a self proclaimed Flagship Killer that promised groundbreaking specs for a mid-range price. But based on the releases at MWC this year, 2017 will be the year that the hype becomes reality. Let’s break down the high-end smartphone experience. What makes a great high-end smartphone? Fast performance, a great camera, multitasking, an attractive screen and strong battery life all come to mind. Maybe a few fancy extras like fingerprint scanning. At MWC, we saw various companies trot out phones that check those boxes, but for half the price of a traditional flagship. Huawei debuted the Nova, which looks like a mini Nexus 6p, and the entire Honor line, which offer serious bang for less buck. Nokia unveiled their 5 and 6, which have all the above features plus an aluminum unibody build. Motorola’s back with the G5 and the G5+, solid upgrades to the venerable value line. ZTE even has a full-on flagship-specced device in the Axon 7 (its metal chassis was co-engineered with BMW), but also offers amazing value versions with the Blade V8 and the Axon 7 mini. All of these phones match or exceed the criteria for a high-end experience without the price tag of a flagship phone.
It means that the mobile inequality gap is closing, and devices fully capable of delivering rich app experiences are about to be in the hands of hundreds of millions more people.
When compared to the significantly more expensive flagship smartphones, mid-range phones seem to have progressed by leaps and bounds this year: capable cameras, smooth & responsive performance, two-day battery life and more. Maybe we’ve hit the point of smartphone perfection on the high-end, and all of the well-known players might now only make minor, iterative tweaks on flagships with each new release as opposed to the groundbreaking changes we were accustomed to seeing between models years ago. Meanwhile, the tortoise has caught up to the hare, and mid-range phones are offering end-to-end packages akin to the high-end experience. In the next 18 months, the pool of premium app users will grow large enough to create a second app-store boom similar to what we saw in the US some years ago.
Historically in the US, the premium smartphone market was driven by 2-year carrier contracts. As long as you signed up to get call, text and data service from the same provider for 2 years, then every couple years you’d be able to buy the latest and greatest smartphone for around $200 (rather than the normal price tag of $700). This created an artificially high number of premium smartphone users in the US, allowing the “app economy” to truly boom like nowhere else in the world. AirBnb, Spotify, Pandora, Facebook, Snapchat, Instagram, Twitter, Netflix and Instagram are massive beneficiaries of this. But for the overwhelming majority of people around the world where smartphones are not subsidized by carriers (a trend that’s now catching on in the US), spending $700 on a phone is often out of the question.
The explosive global growth of the mid-range phone market stems from this issue, but 2017 may mark the year where the student has become the master. Huawei, ZTE & their compatriots all have performance that can be described as quick and smooth, with powerful processors, vivid, hi-res screens, immensely capable cameras and plenty of storage and battery to boot.
So what’s the big takeaway from MWC this year? It’s not a futuristic device or a viral mobile app, but rather a message that involves reading between the lines. Mid-range phones have nearly caught up to the experience of their high-end relatives, and an untapped user base of hundreds of millions of people (maybe billions?) will soon be looking for new apps that fit into their way of life. The next few years may not see any notable hardware advancements or revolutions in the app-building process, but they will be huge for seeing how a traditionally underserved market leverages their newfound smartphone opportunities. Let’s just hope they do more with it than take dog-ear selfies on Snapchat.
Lead Android Developer