OEM’s Choice: The Fragmentation and Subsequent Stratification of Android
“Be Together Not The Same”
The slogan debuted a year ago with the release of Lollipop, highlighting the greatest strength of Android: choice. The sheer diversity of Android products has exploded in 2015, with manufacturers opting to offer multiple versions of their flagship devices, such as the Samsung S6, S6Edge, Note 5, S6E+, Moto X Play, Style, Pure, Nexus 5X, 6P… You get the point. And yet, 2015 was dubbed by many as one of the most disappointing years for flagships so far. When a device doesn’t check all the boxes of features we want, it’s quickly ruled out by the community of enthusiasts. Samsung has done away with MicroSD cards, removable battery, and OnePlus’ decision to opt out of using NFC caused a particularly loud uproar — these are two of the most criticized compromises, but hardly the only ones in 2015.
Perhaps in the case of OnePlus its marketing carries some of the blame for the vitriol it sparked, but the self-branded “2016 flagship killer” fell short of the slogan. What’s more, we sneer at “ugly” skins that deviate too much from stock Android, and it’s easy to see why: It’s not just about looks; a uniform OS offer easier optimization, better compatibility, longer support and quicker security patches and firmware jumps, just to mention a few reasons.
On the other hand, improvements in functionality are welcomed with open arms. Look at TouchWiz, for example. Berated for its looks, bloatware and overzealous RAM management, it is still unrivaled in multi-window support, something we covered last week It stuck to granular volume control when stock completely removed it, and it maintained a “silent mode” throughout Lollipop. The S-pen on the Note variants utilize the phablet size to add functionality, rather than just adding more content to the extra real estate. And still “TouchWiz” sounds like a curse-word to many enthusiasts. The kindest words you heard about it around the release of the S6 this spring were “it’s not that bad any more!” We demand that OEMs walk a tightrope between adhering to stock and adding functionality, and clearly, it’s a hard balance to strike.
So what do we want in a phone? Ask ten people and you’ll likely get ten different answers. To generalize, however, we request frequent and timely updates on Google’s schedule. A good camera, good battery, preferably a minimum of 32GB storage. Of course, good-looking design and premium materials are always welcome, but perhaps not necessary. Now, we all prioritize different aspects of a device, but none of the top manufacturers are intentionally going to make an “okay” camera in exchange for battery longevity in their flagships. In a market as competitive as the smartphone market, no manufacturer can afford to cater to a limited consumer base and risk complete failure. No, they are going to do the very best they can in their flagship lines and hope to cater to as many as possible.
Aside from outliers that are few and far between (and often from much less known manufacturers), the other obvious exception here would be budget devices, but they open up a different area of compromises. Concessions will be made in carefully considered places, but a lower price point must also be reached, which brings about other compromises such as low-end processors, less RAM, 720p screens and so on. For some, that may be enough. However, a device which focuses solely on your two top priorities whilst gimping other aspects will almost certainly sell less than a fully featured counterpart, and would likely see a sooner end in OS upgrades, leading us back to the issue of how long devices will be supported. I’d wager the Moto E(2015) controversy has made many consumers think twice about budget devices.
Perhaps then the multiple variants of flagships that have been typical for 2015 releases should have been expected.
While most of us want (again, a generalization) a good camera, good battery life, smooth performance and an aesthetically pretty phone, the question of screen size is more polarizing. Of course, we still prioritize various features differently, but while you can settle for a slightly worse than ideal camera, it’s harder to work around something as fundamental as the size of the phone itself.
At this point, we have plenty to choose from. And yet there’s been a very clear message of what sells. We’ve covered this before, such as in the article “The Paradox of Choice and Why OEMs Don’t Listen”, and it’s hardly a secret, the smartphone market is highly competitive. HTC’s share prices have dropped by over 90% since its peak in April 2011, which illustrates that point all too clearly. So does this mean that because we all have slightly different checklists, we ensure that manufacturers must check all the boxes, or fail miserably?
The question I thus pose to you is: do we leave OEMs much choice?