Piñatas & Soul-Searching: Android Smartphone Industry Yearbook – Class Of 2018

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It's December 31, another year is behind us, and the smartphone industry has surely been through a lot over the last twelve months, even though 2018 actually wasn't that impressive in terms of mobile innovations. So, after sensibly gifting the world's top Android smartphone makers, it's time to take a look at the class of 2018 as a whole, see how their graduations went, and attempt to predict how they'll do in the big leagues moving forward, assuming no grand catastrophe takes place, which certainly isn't a given with some of these brands.

ASUS – "still water runs deep"

It's easy to forget ASUS is an Android smartphone maker seeing how its mobile division doesn't put out countless devices on an annual basis but this year saw the Taiwanese tech juggernaut deliver arguably the best gaming handset ever in the form of the ROG Phone. While the device hardly made significant waves in terms of sales seeing how it has yet to be released in most target markets, it's a promising sign of things to come; after Razer, Honor, and several other phone manufacturers, it's ASUS that's now quietly leading the push for mobile gaming to be taken seriously, which is certainly a praiseworthy feat for an otherwise minor Android OEM and one that's promising more choice for consumers in the future.

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Google – "I didn't choose the notch life, the notch life chose me"

Google had a rather underwhelming year in terms of its mobile division as it failed to continue the tradition of delivering best-in-class mobile camera and launched a device featuring what's widely criticized as the most unbecoming display notch ever. That isn't to say the Pixel 3 range is bad but it certainly failed to continue the momentum generated by the first two generations of the Android flagship family, at least in terms of industry-leading innovations. It remains to be seen whether the lineup at least sells well relative to the Pixel 2 family but whatever happens, Google will hopefully do a better job at mobile design in 2019.

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HTC – "most likely to go bankrupt within the next three years"

HTC's downward spiral continued throughout 2018 with dwindling revenues accompanied by major job cuts, product streamlining efforts, and unit consolidation. While it's still business as usual at the Taiwanese company, that's primarily due to the $1.1 billion it received from Google in January, exchanging it for a significant portion of its engineering talent and unrestricted access to its patent portfolio. So, while bankruptcy isn't an immediate concern, it certainly seems like a possibility, especially given how the firm's near-term plans are essentially more of the same.

Huawei – "most likely to be deported"

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2018 was arguably Huawei's most ambivalent year to date. On on hand, the company set new commercial records and is already widely believed to have overtaken Apple as the world's second largest manufacturer in terms of both sales and shipments. Then again, it also ended up being blacklisted by U.S. federal agencies in the telecom equipment market, faced an abundance of new accusations about posing a major spying threat due to its close ties to Beijing, and had its CFO arrested earlier this month. As things stand right now, the tech giant is on course of being completely marginalized — if not outright banned — in the U.S., which is bound to deliver a massive blow to its ambitions.

LG – "insanity is doing the same thing over and over again while expecting different results"

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If HTC deserves criticism because it isn't changing its core mobile strategy even in face of a consecutive decline, that goes doubly so for LG. Sure, its situation isn't nearly as dire and its business as a whole is presently actually generating historic profits but that's precisely why the South Korean company can afford to experiment and try something new. However, instead of opting for such an approach in order to attempt revitalizing its struggling Android smartphone division, the firm spent the entirety of 2018 launching what seems like a flagship per month. Not only did LG confuse its own customer base with this year's chaotic mobile strategy but it also failed to truly dominate any particular aspect of contemporary smartphone tech despite releasing what felt like two ultra-premium devices for every flagship debuted by its (much more successful) rivals.

Motorola – "alright guys, who replaced my vitamins with Ambien?"

It wouldn't be fair to say 2018 was Motorola's weakest year ever or even its worst year under Lenovo's corporate umbrella seeing how the company did make some inroads in terms of raw commercial performance and distribution deals but it was just so – forgettable. The fact that the former Google unit failed to release a single flagship over the course of an entire year for the first time ever likely contributed to that perception, though it's not like Motorola lately had any significant success in the premium segment of the market. Still, when you're an Android OEM whose most significant annual achievement is outing a gimmicky accessory promising technology that isn't there for customers who don't exist that will become available for purchase at some point that isn't clearly defined, you certainly had a year to forget. In Motorola's case, most people already forgot, so here's to hoping this iconic company stops hybernating by spring.

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Nokia – "don't fix what isn't broken"

HMD Global did what it set out to do this year; it continued growing the Nokia smartphone brand and expanding its reaches far beyond the shambles that was its Microsoft era. It hardly broke any new technological grounds while doing so and is actually now pursuing a product strategy that's more vanilla than ever but the Finnish firm is hardly pressed to fix what isn't broken. So, while stock Android isn't as exciting as it once was (read: most proprietary OEM implementations were horrible), HMD's decision to double down on it by fully embracing Google's Android One program and the fact that its contemporary Nokia devices are arguably the best-supported handsets in the world in terms of software updates — even compared to Apple's iPhones — means the company can surely be pleased with what it accomplished in 2018.

OnePlus – "most likely to be married next year"

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OnePlus should really think about changing its "Never Settle" tagline that's now more often used as a meme template than a marketing slogan. Between yet another wave of price hikes, headphone jack removals, and display notches, the Chinese firm certainly did no shortage of settling in 2018. None of that is to say its products aren't worth buying; in fact, the OnePlus 6T is currently arguably the best option for consumers looking for flagship performance that doesn't cost an arm and a leg but the company's original advertising mantra now does a poor job of combining with its latest products. And that's not even a bad thing; flow production simply isn't possible without compromises and the fact that OnePlus is now making them means it's still growing and might eventually become a truly serious rival to the handful of the world's largest OEMs. After all, competition is always good news for consumers.

Samsung – "forever young"

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Samsung had a rather weak year by its standards, perhaps due to an overall lack of innovation offered by its latest Android flagships, perhaps because the global market reached a boiling point of saturation, or perhaps because its competitors delivered outstanding products. Its weaker-than-expected performance is likely a combination of all three factors and then some, though the company's main mobile marketing campaign probably didn't help its sales, having been a mixture of generic lifestyle messages and – gaming features. That's right, Samsung is now advertising its most expensive devices traditionally targeted at productivity-oriented consumers as Fortnite machines. Whether this weak attempt at being hip continues into 2019 remains to be seen, though Samsung's forever-young marketing mantra hardly found a lot of success this year.

Sony – "soul-searching is a lifelong quest"

Sony's mobile division is still in the process of finding its identity for the umpteenth time and didn't really impress over the course of this year; it was a year late to embracing minimal-bezel design and is still struggling with coding software that would do justice to its imaging hardware, as evidenced by the fact that the mobile photography experience offered by its 2018 Android flagships is still behind the likes of Samsung, Huawei, Apple, and Google, despite the company's best-in-class sensors. Here's to hoping Sony's ideas actually come to fruition next year as the market could certainly use more competition and as far as this year is concerned, the Japanese firm gave consumers little reason to buy its devices.

ZTE – "life is a party and I'm a piñata"

ZTE just endured one of its worst years ever, largely due to its issues with the U.S. government that brought it to the verge of bankruptcy due to its inability to adhere with the terms of a 2017 settlement as part of which it pleaded guilty to a conspiracy to violate trade sanctions imposed on Iran and North Korea. Yeah, pretty serious stuff for a company most American consumers know of solely due to the label on the back of their grandma's prepaid phone. While the Chinese state-owned manufacturer resumed normal operations in late summer, its current condition is far from healthy and with new allegations now emerging, not to mention reports that White House plans to ban its telecom products entirely, the Shenzhen-based OEM is likely in for another rough year.

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Dominik started at AndroidHeadlines in 2016. He’s approaching his first full decade in the media industry, with his background being primarily in technology, gaming, and entertainment. These days, his focus is more on the political side of the tech game, as well as data privacy issues, with him looking at both of those through the prism of Android. Contact him at [email protected]

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