While innovation is necessary for the survival of handset makers, it does not come as fast as the next launch. "Breakthrough features will only come at a logarithmic pace," says Alok Shende, founder director of Ascentius Consulting, a consulting and analytics firm. Due to shorter time horizon, phone vendors are under pressure to launch new versions, he adds.
Product life cycles for mobile phones are getting shorter. For example, there was a 15-month gap between the launch of Apple's iPhone 4 and iPhone 4S. The next launch came just 11 months later. "This is further expected to shrink with the next version," says Shende. Lesser time leads to lower innovation.
Some analysts feel smartphone features might have hit a saturation point. Almost all smartphones now offer high-end cameras, while they differ mainly in terms of add-on features. Nokia Lumia 920 has a camera that can automatically delete a random disturbance while taking a picture.
BlackBerry's latest Z10 boasts of a camera that can capture the smile of the subject even if it changes to a frown just before clicking the picture. Apple also heavily advertises its panoramic view photographing ability. A while back, a handset by Taiwan-based HTC boasted of 3D video recording. While such features differentiate one handset from another, not many add material value to a brand, say analysts.
"It follows the adage of 'shoot first and aim later'. Many features get added that may not be sufficiently mature in themselves or that the features may not translate into significant advantages and benefits for users," says Shende.
According to Faisal Kawoosa, senior manager of telecoms at CyberMedia Research, it is getting difficult for users to differentiate between smartphones based on features. "If you see some of the recent launches in the smartphone category, there is not much of a difference. Going ahead, I don't think we will see any significant change. At present, what players are focusing is how can they better a competition's product," he adds.
Smartphones that offer faster phone services with high-computer processors also do not count as differentiators, according to analysts. Samsung S4 offers an eight-core processor. Apple's iPhone 5 uses a new chip which is two times faster and 22 per cent smaller than iPhone 4S. The new iPhone version is also 20 per cent lighter and 18 per cent thinner than the last.
"A faster processor is not a good enough reason for people already using the earlier version to upgrade their models. Only a disruptive product, say Google Glasses, can make the market stop focusing just on horsepower," said a Singapore-based tech analyst, who did not want to be named. Large-screen smartphones also compete with mobile computing devices such as tablets and now phablets, preferred by consumers for higher activity.
Simple improvements over competitors may take the zing off massive purchases made immediately after the launch. The last iPhone launch saw record weekend sales, but this frenzy might come down or even decrease in the days to come. The replacement market for smartphones has also been shrinking.
With no "new" features coming in, slightly older features face the risk of being copied, making them generic across brands. "Industry laggards will find sufficient time and scope to roll up phones that will come in sufficient distance of top brands. This will lead to flattening of market shares. The high market share enjoyed by both Apple and Samsung is in this context an aberration. Aspects like brand, positioning and distribution will become more important drivers for market share gains," believes Ascentius Consulting's Shende.
Jan Dawson, chief telecom analyst at Ovum, a consultancy firm, said during the launch of S4: "The improvements to eye tracking and the additions of S Translator and the hover feature and so on are good steps in this direction, but they can be seen as gimmicks rather than game changers."
AS SMART AS THEY GET
|iPhone 5||Sleeker, faster version of iPhone 4S, which had Siri a high-end voice interactive service that takes commands|
|Blackbery Z 10||Camera which capture missed moments, multi-tasking with split screen|
|Nokia Lumia 920||Exclusive maps and city lens, accessories like wireless charging|
|Samsung S 4||Can use eyes to scroll the screen; operate screen by hover fingers without touching|