As the smartphone market matures, many consumers are narrowing in on what they consider to be a phone’s most important features: the display, camera, and battery life. Given this, every major flagship phone announcement of the past two years has embraced improvements in these areas.
Take, for example, the announcement of Samsung’s Galaxy S7 and S7 Edge this week at the Mobile World Congress event in Barcelona. The latest updates to the wildly successful Galaxy franchise iterates on all three aspects of a smartphone. Borrowing from its smartwatch corporate siblings, the S7 phones now include an always-on display that can display simple information such as a clock or monthly calendar. Samsung has significantly beefed up the battery capacity of both phones versus their predecessors. And their cameras, which now protrude less from each phone’s back, improve low-light photos and focus more quickly.
In terms of industrial design, the S7 phones resemble their predecessors, the Galaxy S6 and S6 Edge, with a sleek aluminum design—a look that turned away from previous Galaxy phones' plastic exteriors, which didn’t exude as premium a style as phones from Apple and HTC. But with the S6 phones, Samsung had left behind some of the differentiators introduced in earlier flagships. These included support for removable batteries and memory cards as well as enhanced water resistance.
In the competitive Android market, it’s risky to drop a feature that some customers might appreciate. Samsung’s break with past features—all of which helped to set Galaxy phones apart from the iPhone—opened a door for competitors such as LG, which played up memory cards and a removable battery in last year's G4 phone. And maybe some of the people who'd chosen earlier Galaxy phones over an iPhone did so in part because of distinguishing features such as the ability to easily expand their storage by popping in a card.
And so Samsung has brought back memory cards well as water resistance, making the S7 series represent something of a greatest-hits phone for the company. But some of those hits have been remixed. The memory card is now easier to access than it was in previous Galaxy S phones—it shares a tray with the SIM card—and the water resistance has been applied internally versus externally. Both of these approaches have allowed Samsung to make the phone even thinner than the S6 phones.
On some fronts, though, you can’t go home again. The S7 handsets keep their beefed-up batteries permanently enclosed within each device’s body.
For its part, LG held held on to memory cards and removable batteries its own G5 smartphone, also announced at Mobile World Congress. Beyond scaling back the screen size in the new smartphone from the G4's 5.5" back down to 5.3", the company has not have reached back as much to its own recent past as Samsung to recapture popular features.
LG has, however, picked up a trick from an ancient playbook—a modular architecture that accommodates specialized accessories. These include a camera grip with extra battery capacity (a similar add-on was once offered by Nokia for its Lumia 1020) and a Bang & Olufsen-branded digital analog converter aimed at audio enthusiasts. This modularity represents a 21st-century reinvention of a concept pioneered by the Handspring Visor PDA, which used Springboard hardware modules that plugged into its back like Game Boy cartridges. Indeed, a cellular module for that device turned the Visor into a precursor of the Treo, a once-leading smartphone that was washed away after the launch of the iPhone.
As Handspring did, LG will court third-party hardware developers with an open hardware specification, allowing for the possibility of add-ons that even LG can't predict. And just like Handspring, which competed with PDA kingpin Palm—which eventually acquired it—LG's smartphones are underdogs in their category.
But LG has access to far greater resources than Handspring, a scrappy startup, ever did; there will surely be more G5 phones sold than total sales for the Visor line. And the G5, which embeds its modules inside its case rather than making them ride piggyback, is sleeker than the chunky Visor was. Still, if the concept fails to catch on… well, the G7 will be here in a few years.
For the moment among Android flagships, those who have ignored the past are doomed to market it.