Thursday, 9 October 2014

One flagship smartphone is no longer enough

Source image: BGR
"The best or most important thing owned or produced by a particular organization". That is the definition of a flagship. For smartphone manufacturers, it's the phone that receives the most marketing, has the best software features, the best hardware specs, the best after sales software support, so on and so forth. Typically, smartphone manufacturers release one flagship a year, and if you use Android, this wasn't really a problem. In fact, it still isn't. With various flagships released each year from several different OEMs, everyone's needs were all pretty much covered. If one OEM's flagship didn't suit you, you could still choose from any of the other flagships from other OEMs. But as we've been seeing lately, the market is growing at such a rapid pace that OEMs are no longer satisfied with releasing just one flagship a year any more. Android OEMs would normally release one main flagship a year, and fill out their portfolio with lesser variants, mid-range and entry level devices. But we are seeing a much more aggressive strategy being adopted by more and more OEMs. Instead of one solitary flagship, accompanied by several mid-range devices, OEMs are now releasing more than one flagship a year. And this is good.

Earlier today, HTC announced the Desire Eye. Judging by the Desire branding, it wouldn't be wrong to assume that this was just another mid-range device, like the Desire 610 or Desire 816. If you did assume that, you'd be wrong. The Desire Eye comes with many of the same flagship specs that the "true" HTC flagship, the One (M8) does. In fact, there are several other HTC phones that share similar specs to the M8. The One (E8), as the name suggests, is almost like an unidentical twin to the M8. If I were to read out the specs of this phone without telling you what it is, your first guess would probably be the M8. Apart from the construction and the rear camera, everything about the E8 is practically identical to the M8. The same can also be said of the Butterfly 2 - almost everything is identical to the M8, again, except the camera and body, which is IPX7 certified. So if you look at the big picture, HTC doesn't really have one flagship, but four. And they are all really good in their own way.
Can you really pick out just one phone as a "flagship"?

HTC isn't the only company to take this multiple flagship approach. Sony for a couple of years now has been releasing two flagships a year. They may not have been part of the same release cycle (each flagship was the successor to the previous model), but they were still released within the same year. This year, they have added a variant to the flagship Xperia Z brand, the Xperia Z Compact brand. Earlier in the year, Sony announced the Xperia Z1 Compact, a smaller version of the Xperia Z1. Unlike the "mini" offering from HTC and Samsung which only share the name of their larger flagship brothers, the Z1 Compact was literally the Xperia Z1 in a smaller body. Apart from the size and resolution of the display, and the size of the battery, everything else was the same as the Z1. Sony followed up the Z1 Compact with the Z3 Compact. Just like before, it is almost identical to the larger Xperia Z3, except for the display and battery. So even following Sony's 6-month product cycle, they too have more than one flagship in the current cycle, the Z3 and Z3 Compact.
Two different sized phones, both flagships. Source: Android Central

We can't talk about variants without mentioning Samsung now, can we? Albeit having variants to the Galaxy S line like the Active, Sport, and Mini, there is another brand which to me, is much more of a flagship than the Galaxy S brand - the Galaxy Note. When the Galaxy Note was first announced, it was an experiment. A niche product. A device aimed at people who were looking to be more productive with their smartphones, with a display so big that it would never be considered mainstream. But over the years, smartphones have become larger and larger, and suddenly, the Note is no longer a giant smartphone that people look at with disbelief. It has successfully become mainstream and as such, it is now considered by many people to be Samsung's true flagship

Even Apple have released two new phones for the first time in their history (no, the 5c doesn't count). The iPhone 6 and 6 Plus are almost identical apart from a few hardware differences. So even Apple is taking a multiple flagship approach.

So it's clear that many major players in the mobile industry have adopted a new multi-flagship approach. And while there is a risk of diluting the brand and spreading their resources too thin, this is actually a good thing. Choice has always been a strength of the Android ecosystem. You could choose a device from any of the many OEMs, and still be using Android. There is now another layer to that choice, at an OEM level. Many people like particular brands of smartphones for various reasons. Some like Galaxy phones for the removable battery. Some only want HTC phones because of BoomSound. Some may only like Sony devices for their sleek design. And if you are on iOS, you don't really have anywhere else to go but the iPhone. So instead of consumers looking for affordable mid-range devices having more choice than the power user who buys a new flagship every year (or every few months), even the power users now have more choice from their favourite OEM.

I was sceptical at first when HTC announced the E8. But looking at the big picture, and looking at how HTC is releasing more and more of its apps into the Play Store, it's clear what direction the company is taking. By placing their apps in the Play Store, system updates will hopefully be much faster, and updating several devices in a timely manner will require less effort. With their software becoming less of a burden, HTC is doing what all OEMs should do - focus on bringing the best hardware to the market. And with other OEMs like Sony, Samsung, and even Apple offering more than one flagship for consumers to choose from, it really is a great time to be buying a smartphone.

No matter what phone you choose, it'll probably be a great buy