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Mobile innovation shifts to smartphone services

As smartphone sales continue to stagnate, suppliers are looking to innovate in more novel ways

The worldwide slowdown in smartphone sales and shipments is making suppliers pause to reconsider how they innovate, according to Gartner.

With the annual Mobile World Congress show just days away, attention is again turning to a wave of new smartphones to be launched at the fair in Barcelona, but analysts doubt there will be any great leaps forward in capabilities this year.

Speaking to Computer Weekly, Gartner research director Anshul Gupta said that because fewer people are buying high-end smartphones and choosing instead to either sweat their devices for as long as possible or go for a cheap and cheerful replacement, there is less capital available for R&D.

“There are some areas where smartphone manufacturers can ramp up innovation,” said Gupta. “But these are more around services, such as Apple Pay, connected homes, and so on.”

Gupta’s colleague Roberta Cozza said suppliers will begin to offer more and more bundles of sensors and enhanced connectivity standards to support the smartphone’s role as a hub for the internet of things.

“We should also observe the evolution of biometric technologies, which enable authentication as well as more personalised device experiences,” she said. “New biometric technologies will go beyond fingerprint and increasingly include voice, facial recognition and other modes to enable authentication.

“I expect immersive experiences, such as augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR) capabilities, to be another key theme in 2016. For example, Samsung Gear VR already uses a smartphone as a portal for VR experiences, and we expect continued development of this more mainstream approach, together with the consumption of 360-degree videos.”

According to Gartner, smartphone sales to end-users totalled 403 million in the final quarter of 2015, up 9.7% on the equivalent period in 2014, the slowest rate of growth since the market’s inception eight years ago. Sales of Apple iPhones actually declined year-on-year.

By Gartner’s reckoning, the top five suppliers in the year-end quarter were: Samsung, which sold 83.4 million units, accounting for 21% of the market; Apple, which sold 71.5 million units; Huawei, which sold 32.1 million units; Lenovo, which sold 20 million units, including Motorola devices; and Xiaomi, which sold 18.2 million units. Other suppliers sold 177.8 million units.

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Gupta said the market continues to be driven by low-cost smartphones in emerging markets, and aggressive pricing from local brands leading to more consumer upgrades coming from countries such as India, which is in the throes of a major 4G roll-out, and Indonesia.

Even so, said Gupta, 85% of users in the Asia Pacific market are replacing mid-range or entry-level devices with the same category, and margins are further squeezed for suppliers by currency devaluations against the US dollar.

More developed markets, such as Western Europe and North America, may also begin to attract the attention of cheaper, insurgent suppliers in the near future, said Gupta.

“Brands such as Xiaomi are increasingly selling through online channels in Europe, but if they want to put feet on the street, they will face challenges around establishing legal offices, licensing and, in some cases, even copyright law,” he said. “It will take a long time for such players to have offices, established after-sales service and warranties in these markets.”

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