Barcelona, Mobile World Congress 2016 – Another year, another record-breaking Mobile World Congress (MWC), with more than 100,000 attendees squeezing into a very busy Fira España. As ever, MWC saw the release of countless new flagship devices, the best of which were Samsung’s S7 and LG’s modular G5, both powered by Qualcomm’s widely-praised Snapdragon 820 processor.
As well as all the new smartphones, manufacturers presented a glut of peripheral hardware, the most common of which were VR headsets and 360-degree cameras. LG were demoing some sort of phone-controlled robotic ball. HTC didn’t even bother with a new phone this year, and chose instead to devote half of their floor space to Vive VR. At the Samsung Unpacked event, Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg went as far as hailing VR as ‘the next social platform’. And while a diverse range of experiences were employed throughout the Fira to showcase this technology – including ski jumps, rollercoasters, submarines, and spacewalks – the effect was of a lot of companies emphasising the homogeneity of their strategy, rather than differentiating their user experiences.
Why all this peripheral hardware? Growth in smartphones has ground to a halt, with Apple and Google siphoning off most of the available profit there. Manufacturers are now going after the consumer electronics market, which offers higher margins and a means (in theory at least) of differentiating ecosystems in the eyes of the consumer.
This strategy might work in the short-term: at MWC the Vive stand featured consistently long queues of attendees wanting to try it out; the consumer version is now available for $799 on pre-order. But as Google already demonstrated with their deliberately rudimentary Cardboard, it won’t take long for margins in the VR to come crashing down. Alcatel’s new Idol 4S smartphone comes in packaging that converts into a VR headset, and it’s not a bad-looking piece of kit. Even the box of a McDonald’s Happy Meal can be converted into a VR headset. The bottom line here is that hardware accessories alone are not sufficient for a solid long-term strategy.
How then can these companies differentiate their offerings? For us at Catchy, this is where the role of the third-party developer is so vital. Recall Android’s growth success, which largely depended upon enabling third-party developers to create new products and user experiences. Innovation on this scale would never have been possible without an open ethos and enabling attitude towards developers. The platform was underpinned by a robust program of developer support, fostering loyalty and success.
At MWC, third-party software developers were woefully undervalued as an audience by the majority of the large manufacturers. As we wandered the Halls, we kept coming back to the same question: why, in the face of all this new hardware, is there so little conversation about the way these shiny devices can be differentiated through software?
Admittedly there were a few exceptions. Intel stood out as best-in-class in this respect, with a large portion of their stand given over to a hands-on ‘Develop’ zone, where tech specialists offered developer tutorials on tools ranging from code compilers to Edison boards. In doing so, Intel demonstrated that they grasp the value that software developers provide, and made it easy for them to get started working with the tools.
In a world of increasingly lookalike smartphones, software is key to driving consumer purchasing decisions. This holds true for IoT too, where the real customer value lies in providing a friendly user experience on top of the swathes of data. Those companies that truly facilitate developer engagement will reap the benefits, by fostering enhanced innovation and thereby improved end user experiences. To us, that’s a far more robust strategy than simply hoping to garner consumer loyalty by manufacturing fancy headsets, cameras and robotic balls.