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Android Headliner: Design is Driving Sales, Not Features

February 15, 2016 - Written By Tom Dawson

When smartphones first became popular with the release of the iPhone, traditional phone manufacturers such as LG, Motorola and Samsung all scrambled to offer as many features as possible, assuming that it was what people could do with a device that would bring in customers. Of course, we now know that it’s not so much what people can do with a device, but how they do it and how enjoyable the overall experience is. I’m reminded of HTC’s Windows Mobile devices that featured elaborated user interfaces to cover up what was arguably one of the most hideous mobile operating systems ever shipped. The TouchFLO 3D interface that HTC crafted and used to paint over Windows Mobile 6.1 helped pave the way for Sense, which helped dress up ugly versions of early Android, but more than software, hardware design is driving sales, and it doesn’t look like this trend is slowing down.

How something looks says a lot about a piece of technology to not only the person who purchases it and uses it themselves, but also to others. There’s a reason the iPhone has evolved little in terms of design; it’s recognizable and appealing to the vast majority of users. People often wonder why the iPhone is only available in a few colors and it’s a pretty simple answer, really. The more choice that people have, the less “iconic” the device in question. Apple isn’t alone in making devices that instantly recognizable and in demand, after all Samsung has been making some good-looking smartphones for a few years now. In the past two years or so, design has become more important than ever for smartphone brands and manufacturers out there.

During 2015 there were perhaps three different processors you would find in the vast majority of the smartphones. These were the Snapdragon 808, the Snapdragon 810 and the Exynos 7420. This gave the majority of flagship devices from 2015 the same essential performance, the same connection speeds and they all ran on Android 5.0 or above. If you took the internals and software from say, a Galaxy S6, a OnePlus Two and an LG G4 and stuffed them in a 5.5-inch black box, their software would definitely stand out, but as Android acts pretty much the same on all three, users would get a pretty similar experience. It’s how the device looks and feels in the hand, how it looks sitting on a table with friends and family and more that determine much of the choice that goes into buying a smartphone. I’m perhaps a bigger example of this than anyone here at Android Headlines.

I often speak of wanting a phone that’s “easy to live with” and a lot of that has to do with how it looks and feels in my hand. I have a few “tenants” that I need fulfilling of course, which normally end up being a good display (nothing exceptional, 1080p is a-okay for me), a decent camera and good battery life. Outside of those three boxes, I go for the device that looks nice and that I like over what it can do for me. I’m a real stickler for logos on devices. It’s a good job that, as a UK resident I don’t have to deal with device logos, how Verizon think that its tram stamps are okay is beyond me (I mean c’mon Verizon, a logo on a home button, really?). My current phone of choice is the OnePlus 2, I love the logo-free front (as I did on my Moto X 2014 before it, and the clean front of my Xperia Z2 before that), I adore the Rosewood back (even if it is fake) and the curved back and added heft feel great in my hand. I’m an easy person to please, I like a minimal design with a little bit of extra flash sprinkled on top.

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That’s what I’m after when looking for a smartphone, but there are clearly a whole demographic of people out there that want a specific look and feel. This brings me to the sad and unfortunate tale of HTC copying the iPhone 6’s aesthetic. I can hear the crackling sound of burning wood and scraping of pitchforks, but all you have to do is look at an iPhone 6 and then look at an HTC One A9 to see HTC had a little more than just inspiration when designing their latest device. HTC enthusiasts will scream at me and tell me that HTC was “FIRST!” with a unibody aluminum build, complete with plastic outlets for transmissions, but that doesn’t really matter. The HTC One M7 was a gorgeous phone and made the Galaxy S4 look like a plastic phone from yesteryear, they pretty much achieved the same thing with the HTC One M8, but the M9 and the Galaxy S6? Whole different story.

When Samsung introduced their new design language last year with the Galaxy S6 and Galaxy S6 Edge, it was the first time that Samsung could honestly say they had the design and build to match up to their excellent feature set and specs. Sure, we could argue that the curved edges and circle drill holes for the speaker borrow from the iPhone, and we could say that Sony had been making glass phones for years before the Galaxy S6, but it didn’t matter because they still managed to create something that looked great in its own right. While Samsung might not have achieved the massive boost in sales they were hoping for – something that might be attributed to a shrinking market – it certainly did wonders for their brand image. How many people still refer to Samsung as “poorly built” “flimsy pieces of plastic”? Fewer than there ever have been, and it’s pushing people towards Samsung’s offerings, that’s for sure.

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Design has become an important selling point recently, and it’s arguably keeping smaller brands like Motorola alive. Could Motorola, in large quantities, seriously sell as many smartphones as they do if they didn’t offer a likeable design? The Moto X offers users all sorts of colors and materials to work with, but we all know the Moto G is their cash cow, and it shares much of the same DNA, including a logo-free front panel and numerous color choices. Last year’s LG G4 wouldn’t have been as popular as it was if it didn’t have the leather backing and multiple choices to offer customers as the G3’s design wasn’t all that well-received.

This year, it seems that design will once again dominate the conversation. With most manufacturers poised to turn to Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 820, it leaves manufacturers less room to set themselves apart from the rest of the pack. We’ve already seen what LG has in store for us with the G5, and it does appear as though LG is turning towards the sort of design that has worked for Apple and Samsung in the past. Meanwhile, brands like Sony and Motorola that stick with their tried and tested designs will be passed over for shinier baubles. We humans feast with our eyes above all, and when looking at smartphones through another smartphone’s display or fondling over it in a store, there’s little else we can do but like what we like, and dislike what we don’t. A device can have all the fancy features in the world, but if it’s not good-looking or likable, then it won’t sell. Apple and Samsung know this only too well, and LG is starting to learn this, which should make 2016 for a very interesting year of fancy-looking smartphones, indeed.