Why Smartphone Accessories Are More Exciting Than the Actual Phones

Lluis Gene/AFP/Getty Images

Lluis Gene/AFP/Getty Images

As you may have noticed in the lineup of devices shown at the Consumer Electronics Show in January, smartphone innovation is slowing down. In fact, many smartphone makers skipped CES to wait to show off their new devices at Mobile World Congress, and those who didn’t skip CES showed devices that weren’t exactly ground-breaking. So it may not surprise you to learn that the smartphone accessories shown at MWC are more exciting than the new smartphones themselves.

Ina Fried reports for Re/Code that there were lots of new phones at MWC, but it was the devices that plug into smartphones that were of more interest at the show. Even with major flagship launches from Samsung and LG, companion devices generated just as much interest as high-end smartphones. A central feature of the LG G5, for instance, is a connector slot that enables you to add modules that augment its camera or up the quality of its audio, and Samsung complemented the new Galaxy S7 and S7 Edge by launching the Gear 360, a camera that captures 360-degree video and uses a smartphone as a viewfinder or remote control.

According to Fried, virtual reality was “probably the hottest of the accessory categories.” LG introduced a new VR player that plugs into the G5, while HTC finally nailed down a ship date and price tag for the Vive virtual reality system. Multiple companies used virtual reality to lure visitors into their booths, with Samsung taking attendees on a roller coaster ride and SK Telecom offering a virtual submarine ride. Similarly, Qualcomm created an augmented reality “invisible museum” that came to life as attendees held up a tablet to unseen objects.

However, the proliferation of virtual reality and augmented reality devices didn’t translate to universally unreserved enthusiasm. Android cofounder Rich Miner, for instance, said that while he thinks that virtual reality will have some uses in entertainment and augmented reality some applications in business, some of the enthusiasm about the two areas is likely exaggerated, and the area “is going to take longer to evolve.”

The consensus on the smartphones present at the show and elsewhere is that while innovation isn’t exactly dead, it’s slowing noticeably. The flagship smartphones unveiled this year have been, by most accounts, only incrementally better than the versions launched last year. Natasha Lomas reports for TechCrunch that a panel at MWC — with speakers from Samsung, Motorola/Lenovo, Wileyfox, Qualcomm, Cyanogen, and Telefonica — each had a different definition of what “innovation” means in the smartphone space. Lomas notes that while “no one was quite willing to pronounce smartphones too boring,” there were various viewpoints on what “being innovative in smartphone terms means now.”

Connected devices that extend the capabilities of smartphones seem a key strategy for some companies, including Samsung. And a dual focus on increasing value while developing new bells and whistles for high-end devices is another common tactic. Tim McDonough, SVP of marketing at Qualcomm, told the audience of flagship launches by Samsung and LG, “Innovation in the handset’s not constrained to the 4.5 inch or 5 inch screen in the device; it’s everything surrounding it, including the ability to capture virtual reality and watch it and share it over wireless with friends and family.”

Jean-Daniel Ayme, Corporate VP of Samsung’s IM division, argued that his company’s device lineup builds around the smartphone, with the Gear VR headset linking to and extending the capabilities of its flagship smartphones. The Gear VR featured prominently in Samsung’s launch event for the Galaxy S7 and S7 Edge, and the company is even including a free Gear VR headset with preorders of the new phones — demonstrating that while a flagship phone on its own may not be enough to get users to upgrade, adding new connected accessories can be a game-changer.

Brian Barrett reports for Wired that the lineup of smartphones showcased at MWC also illustrated another interesting trend: that phones have begun to “find the balance between boring and bizarre.” While the iPhone dominates the high end of the smartphone market, and many manufacturers have tried to imitate the iPhone, Barrett posits that the latest flagship phones have illustrated that there’s still innovation left in the smartphone market, in ways that are useful rather than (excessively) gimmicky.

The modules that can attach to the LG G5, for instance, have the potential to become the foundation for a practical system by which you can improve your smartphone in the ways that matter most to you. And while previously innovative Android manufacturers like HTC “abandon any pretense of not just being a knockoff,” LG’s experiment with modules is an interesting way to offer users options without releasing a confusing assortment of different-but-similar smartphones.

Even HP’s Elite x3 — a high-powered phone with the fatal flaw of running Microsoft’s Windows platform — pushes the boundaries of what a smartphone can do thanks to accessories that empower it to act like a laptop or desktop computer. The approach to modularity is an attempt to offer something useful with capabilities and accessories that make the smartphone into something more — an approach that’s likely to gain momentum as more smartphone makers realize that useful is better than gimmicky and turn to accessories to extend the smartphone’s abilities.

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