The camera is now the only smartphone feature that matters

The camera is becoming the defining feature of the smartphone as the market changes again.

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Huawei's new smartphones put the camera front and centre.

Image: Huauwei

Huawei has unveiled two new set of smartphones including one device that packs three separate lens into its main camera set up.

The Chinese smartphone maker launched its latest flagship devices at an event in Paris -- the Huawei P20 and Huawei P20 Pro.

The Huawei P20 has a 5.8-inch display, while the P20 Pro packs a 6.1-inch display; both feature an iPhone X style notch for the sensors and cameras. But the P20 Pro ups the ante for smartphone makers with a three-lens camera set up and AI to help frame your compositions. And Huawei's emphasis on the camera shows where smartphone makers think the money is these days.

That's because the launch comes at a difficult time in the global smartphone market: while 408 million smartphones were sold in the fourth quarter of 2017, that was a 5.6 percent decline over the fourth quarter of 2016, according to Gartner -- making it the first year-on-year decline. Consumers are holding onto their smartphones longer than they did before as there are few new features being introduce that are persuading them to upgrade.

The average mid-range smartphone now contains pretty much all the features that the typical user will ever need, and probably a few more that they don't even know are in there. Most of the essential features (calling, email, messaging, social media, gaming, and music) are either commodities or are provided by third parties. Innovating around these core features is all but impossible.

However, as the smartphone market becomes saturated and commoditised, smartphone makers are looking to premium, flagship models as a way to make higher margins from lower volumes.

And one of the few things that will still lure consumers into an upgrade is a better camera.

The big smartphone makers know this is the case, and Huawei has targeted this area for some time -- for example, introducing dual-cameras with its P9 a couple of years back. Huawei is hardly alone in this; much of Apple's advertising emphasises the iPhone's photographic capabilities. And these features aren't cheap, either: the camera unit for Samsung's recently launched Galaxy S9 Plus is one of the most expensive elements in the device, costing around $45 out of a total bill of materials of around $376.

There's a couple of obvious reasons for this. Smartphone cameras are pretty good now but there is still room for improvement. Photos (and video) are even more important than they were before the advent of social media. Not only does nobody want to risk their photos being ruined by a poor camera, no one wants the shame of posting something sub-par onto Instagram.

But for a brand like Huawei, going all-in on the camera could be a good way to stand out and build the brand recognition that it needs to stand apart from Samsung and Apple.

TechRepublic: How to take professional photos with your smartphone

"Photography is no longer a 'let's get a quick snapshot on Facebook' but users on Instagram want to showcase their original ideas and put themselves in a good light and share those things," said Annette Zimmermann, Gartner research vice president. "With the use of AI they let people add very cool art effects on their images," she said.

Zimmermann said Huawei has Samsung in its sights with the P20 range because it has been the leader in camera technology so far. In some cases, it is still trying to match its competitor's capabilities but it is also bringing its own ideas and approach to the product.

"The P20 series could demonstrate the fruits of Huawei's labour. The continued partnership with Leica will deliver not only real photographic innovation, but also lend some much-needed brand recognition to Huawei in markets where it is less well known, like the UK," said Dominic Sunnebo, global director at Kantar Worldpanel ComTech.

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