What is inevitably the first thing that we hear about new smartphones? Well, the spec sheet. We are – in most cases – told about the kind of display, the amazing processor, the even more amazing cameras, blusteringly fast charging…and so on and so forth. And well, most smartphone brands insist that these matters a lot to consumers. So you would assume the bestselling high-end phone in the world would come with the most amazing specs, right?
So, SO Wrong.
The highest selling smartphone in the world over the past year (since Q4 2018 to the end of Q3 2019) has:
Not even a full HD display.
No AMOLED display.
No amazing refresh rate.
Just a single camera at the back.
No fast charger in the box.
We are talking of the iPhone XR, of course, which has been topping sales charts for a year now. And frankly, its presence makes a complete and utter mockery of all those who insist that spec sheets drive sales. Honestly, with THAT sort of spec sheet, it should have been trampled all over by better-specced Androids and even iPhones – hey, even the ancient iPhone 7 Plus had a dual camera and a full HD display!
And it is not a one-off really, the iPhone 11 which shares almost all of the “deficiencies” of the iPhone XR we have mentioned above ( it does have dual cameras), is at number five in that list.
All of which CAN make one wonder a little. Yes, we know that everyone keeps saying that the general rules of top specs do not apply to the iPhone as a category, but then even Apple’s devices seemed to have toed the big spec line, of late, especially with the iPhone XS and XS Max. The XR was seen by many as a step back, with hardware being compromised for the sake of a lower price tag. Apple had done this in the past, with the iPhone 5c and the iPhone 5S but results had been largely mixed. The XR, however, (to quote a colleague of ours) hit it out of the park.
And therein we think lies a huge lesson for Android smartphone manufacturers – the need to perhaps get off the tech spec bandwagon. For, Android brands have been for far too long been ceaselessly harping on the specs that come inside them. Perhaps the last time a high profile device really decided to go against the tech spec tide was the original Moto X, way back in 2013. But since then, the rule, by and large, has been to talk specs – whether it is of the number of cores in a processor, the megapixels in a camera (we are already on 108!), the stacks of RAM (enough to make most notebooks blush) or the mAh in a battery and the hours/minutes taken to charge it.
All right, let me say it upfront – Android brands need to get over their obsession to express things numerically.
This is not to say that one should not talk of numbers and specifications. They are important. But if they do not translate into a significant change in the user experience, then they are for all means and purposes, nothing more than fancy words on a piece of glossy paper. And 2019, in particular, has seen a number of Android phone brands fall back on specs rather than experience to push products, from screen refresh rates that were not clearly detectable, to staggeringly high megapixel camera counts that still do not match pictures from cameras that had a fraction of the megapixel number to battery charging times that really did not make that much of a difference to a populace inclined to leave phones on charge overnight!
The irony is that all this stress on hardware specifications has actually eroded their credibility. People now do not get as impressed by a quad HD display as they did three years ago (oh yes, they have been around for that long) and processor cores and speed are no longer the killer propositions they once more, and the rate at which things are going indicates that RAM and megapixels are going to join them on the low attention rubbish heap. Let’s be brutally honest: who on earth is going to be impressed with the “64-megapixel” part of a camera if it cannot match the output of a 12 megapixel one? Similarly, if the only difference a processor can make is, maybe deliver a few faster frames (again, not very noticeable) of a particular game, then the user is unlikely to be too impressed by processor numbers in the future.
To be fair, Android players have tried to stress experience, but their efforts have tended to be undermined by their own tendency to fight on the spec bandwagon more often. Take the case of Xiaomi. The brand tried to play the “experience” card rather than hardware with its Mi A3 this year, but it simply did not work as well because the same brand would talk of the importance of hardware on other devices – in the end, the Mi A3 ended up taking flak for having “only” an HD display (even though the iPhone XR has a largely similar resolution).
Samsung and Google have come out with “lighter” versions of their flagships, but their attempts get handicapped by the fact that the original flagships were hyped for hardware. “They will talk ‘experience’ to justify inferior hardware,” a colleague of ours snorted when Google launched the Pixel 3a. Also, in most cases, these versions were not promoted as heavily as the “real” flagships – we do not recall seeing the sort of billboards and print ads around the S10e and Pixel 3a that we saw around the S10 and Pixel 3.
Now compare this with Apple’s approach to the iPhone XR and 11 – the brand (at least in India) – threw the comms kitchen sink at the two phones, and in fact, we have sometimes felt that these were being promoted more than their more expensive counterparts. And of course, Apple did not talk that much about specs at the launch of these devices, because hey, it very rarely does anyway – we still do not “officially” know the amount of RAM in an iPhone. Instead, it went on and on about experiences, experiences which could be replicated and were often visible to consumers – we have lost count of the people who have been amazed at the display of the iPhone XR and the iPhone 11, even though in spec terms, those are beaten by devices that cost a fourth (or even lesser) of its price.
Specs CAN be important – hey, even Apple is now talking in terms of processor cores – but when they do not translate into “obvious” (and we stress the word), their value depreciates in the eyes of the consumer. And those are the eyes that really matter at the end of the day.
At the end of the day, experience sells. And is more difficult to replicate than a spec sheet. We really think it is about time Android manufacturers realized that.
Note: Well, yes, this is the THIRD article we are writing about Counterpoint’s report on the ten bestselling phones of Q3 2019. But the report DID make us think.