If you haven't heard, LG's new flagship mobile phone, the G2, has arrived.
You can read the CNET review here and news about the announcement here. In the latter, my talented colleague Shara Tibken explains that the Korean phonemaker "hopes that the gadget's impressive specs can stand up to the best from Apple and Samsung."
Wrong. It's all wrong.
Not Shara, of course—she's reporting what she knows. And the phone indeed lives up to the hardware hype: 5.2-inch full HD display, quad-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 800 processor, LTE-Advanced capable, 13 megapixel camera, et cetera.
But this is not how we should be selling smartphones six years into their existence.
We need to sell experience, not specifications.
Remember the PC bull market of the very late 1990s, when every computer maker was vying for a place in the consumer's home? I'm talking about the heady days of Intel's Pentium III processor and the great megahertz (then gigahertz) race. Every vendor wants a key statistic to indirectly convey to potential customers that their product is the best; with PCs, there were an array to choose from, most prominently a processor's clock speed. Bigger is better.
As the market matured, it became clear that the numbers no longer mattered. Sure, you might be able to get someone to rationalize a purchase with them, but they didn't really make an impact in terms of the use case—at some point, PC performance became good enough to handle the majority of the market's needs without sweating. In terms of importance, the technology components began to recede.
Smartphones haven't been around nearly as long as personal computers, but I'm convinced that they're on the same path.
When I first held the T-Mobile G1 in my hand in late 2008, its hardware limitations were obvious to me: it was sluggish, animations were jittery, the handset weighed like a brick in my bag. In short, using it was a drag. Today, I can pick up any full-price phone and feel confident that the screen is crisp, the processor is snappy and the entire thing is light and thin enough to slip into a back pocket. While there remain key differences between phones using different operating systems—iOS and Android and Windows Phone and BlackBerry—the handsets themselves have receded a bit. Screen size seems to be the last big statistic for a buyer to hang on, and that seems to be a matter of personal preference more than anything else.
Which leaves user experience: the true be-all, end-all differentiator of a product. In phones, that's tough: everyone's using the same hardware, more or less, and within Android everyone's got the same operating system, too. Custom user interface skins aside, there isn't much for a vendor to choose from to stand out. Who makes the best little black box: LG, Samsung, Motorola?
So the game often boils down to which vendor is first with a new component.
It should really be around who ties them together the best.
With the G2, LG, needs to tamp down talk about the phone's clock speed (2.26 gigahertz, if you're wondering) and RAM (two gigabytes) and "back button" and play up the innovative things that it's trying to do to knit hardware and software together. Otherwise, LG's just pushing the same kit as Samsung and its other Android-based peers.
For example, the phone's answering of an incoming phone call when you hold it up to your ear. That's a solution that actually improves a person's experience. "Guest Mode" also seems like a decent idea; it allows you to sandbox activity when allowing another person to use your phone. Assuming the feature can be engaged in a single, simple motion, it's a worthwhile solution to address how we use our phones today.
"There have been a lot of innovations in the spec battle," Ramchan Woo, LG's head of LTE product planning, said to reporters during the phone's launch. "However, that doesn't make our life better."
That's a nice sentiment, but it's not really the one being pushed by LG.
News headlines about the G2's recent launch:
- LG announces G2 with 5.2 inch display, minimal bezel, and buttons on the back
- LG G2 has zippy '800' processor, back-panel controls
- LG G2: Back-Mounted Buttons, 5.2-inch 1080p Display, 3,000 mAh Battery
- LG G2 display: ultra-thin bezels, two touch sensors, Graphic RAM and over 6M subpixels
- LG's new G2: high-end smartphone in the front, button party in the back
- LG launches its G2 smartphone: 5.2-inch, 1080p, Snapdragon 800 processor, rear volume rocker
- LG G2 smartphone unveiled with rear control key
- LG's New G2 Is a High-Grade Speedster With One Weird Button
- LG Thinks Putting A Volume Button On The Back Of Its New Phone Will Make You Want To Buy It
Every single one of these headlines is intensely hardware-focused. That's the nature of the enthusiast tech press corps at large, but also a symptom of LG's inability to change the conversation. We wouldn't know these specifications unless LG released them.
(Take Apple, for example: There's a very good reason why you don't know how much RAM is in an iPhone 5 when it's introduced, and it's not because the number is not competitive. The focus is simply: it's better.)
I'm sure rival Samsung sold many, many Galaxy S3 handsets in 2012 purely on technical specifications, but I suspect it didn't really crack the mainstream market without features such as its eye-tracking ability and its voice-activated personal assistant, an overall "quality" feel that put focus on the device's fit and finish and a metric ton of marketing that told you, essentially, that it had feature parity with the iPhone. (Indeed, Jessica Dolcourt wrote then that the device was no speeds and feeds winner, just a better all-around package.)
Let's face it: components are commodities. It's time for phonemakers to focus on building a better phone. And not just a faster, bigger, more numerically-pleasing one.