Forget iOS vs Android, when will there be a competitor to Apple & Samsung?

This article may contain personal views and opinion from the author.
Forget iOS vs Android, when will there be a competitor to Apple & Samsung?
There are a lot of fights to be had in the mobile space. Given the opportunity (regardless of how slight the instigation may be) people will fight over what mobile platform is the best, which philosophy of mobile is best, what apps are best, what games are best, which carrier is best, and on and on. Even now in the comment thread, there is bound to be a number of readers pretending to be rational (though really ignoring each other in favor of repeating their preferred viewpoint) and "arguing" many of these points just because the phrase "iOS vs Android" is in the article title. Many may not have even noticed the word that preceded those words, because the activation phrase had already been let loose. 

Of course, aside from mobile platform, there is often an argument about what manufacturer builds the best hardware. The strange thing about this argument is that it is very compartmentalized. By that we mean people will argue what Android manufacturer is best, or if Android handsets are nicer than say the new Lumia series phones from Nokia. But, the second Apple's name is mentioned, it is impossible to carry a conversation on the topic, because it will quickly devolve into a good vs evil fight between Apple and Google (or Google and Apple, depending on how you were raised.) 

If at all possible, we'd like to buck that trend and have a conversation about something important, which actually unites Apple and Android users to an extent. Okay, we wouldn't be so foolish as to expect that, but at the very least, let's lump together Samsung and Apple, because those two companies wield a large amount of power in the mobile ecosystem. We know that when Samsung and Apple's names are mentioned together, the topic inevitably turns to the lawsuit battles (and by extension who is the victim and who is the bully), or to a simple Android vs iOS scrap, but we think this issue is bigger than those debates, at least for right this minute. 

As we just learned yesterday that a surge by Samsung and Apple, and a sharp decline by Nokia in shipments over the last year now means that together Samsung and Apple are responsible for almost 55% of the smartphone hardware being shipped to stores. Regardless of what platform is being run on the devices - obviously iOS on Apple, but Samsung has Android, Windows Phone and bada devices on the market, though to be fair, the vast majority of Samsung handsets are Android - that is 55% of the hardware design controlled by two companies. And, beyond that, it is 55% of the hardware design compacted into relatively few high-end designs, because Apple has a limited number of handsets (only 2 different hardware designs for 3 handsets available for purchase), and Samsung commonly reuses chassis across platforms. 

Forgettable design

This consolidation of hardware design power has had the troublesome aspect of marginalizing the impressive design chops of other manufacturers. Even Nokia had to make its newest phone cyan (a color never even considered for phone use before) in order to get attention in a world consumed by white (Apple) and black (Samsung). Other manufacturers struggle to be seen, and given the rise in dominance of Samsung and Apple, it's pretty clear that those manufacturers are failing in that endeavor. 

HTC has a very specific aesthetic that is immediately recognizable as an HTC device, but there is nothing exceptionally bold or striking about an HTC phone. They all are white or grey, or a mixture of the two, with gently rounded edges, a standard bezel, and small, nondescript buttons. HTC has pleasant design, though nothing incredibly interesting, but at least we can say that HTC is trying. Motorola has functional design, and is trying to be somewhat bold with the new trend of making devices that are like rectangular octagons (any geometry people out there know of a proper term for that?). We're sure that some people like Motorola design, but it's hard to imagine someone loving it enough to defend it in conversation. And, aside from the odd "world's thinnest" phone that comes along, there's nothing all that striking about any other devices out there (although we do like the look of the upcoming Sony Xperia devices, but can't count them here, because they aren't on the market yet).

The only time that many manufacturers attempt a truly bold design option, it is often because they are specifically targeting a design-conscious group, like the various Prada or Dior phones, which are meant to be high-end fashion accessories rather than useful smartphones. Or, the most egregious offenders of gimmick design are all of the phones targeted towards women, like the HTC Rhyme (because who really wants to buy a plum colored phone?) There is a big difference between gimmicky design and quality design that will attract customers and brand your hardware. 

Design branding

Love them or hate them, Apple and Samsung shoot for striking design (and remember, we're just talking high-end devices here, not the Samsung Dart). Apple always attempts for iconic design, but will settle for unique design, and often lands somewhere in the range of memorable design to possibly unique. You may not like the aesthetic, but you know an Apple device when you see it, and never confuse it for a different device. This is especially impressive because of how much Apple can change the look of devices. 

Apple achieves this by branding its devices with not only the Apple logo or the white headset wires (which are both a huge advantages for branding), but also with a distinctive feature on the front. No matter how much an iPod nano may change shape, you know it's an iPod because of the wheel on the front. Similarly, if the screens were off and you couldn't see the Apple on the back, you would still know that the iPhone 3G(s) and iPhone 4(S) are made by the same company because of the distinctive home button on the front. That allows you to recognize an Apple device regardless of what the device looks like. Strip away that Apple logo and home button, and why would anyone recognize the iPhone 3G(s) and iPhone 4(S) as being from the same manufacturer (as you can see on the right)?

There are more subtle design choices as well, which don't so much serve to brand the device as give it just that extra bit of flair and recognizability. If you look at a white iPhone 3G(s) and an HTC One X, it looks almost like they could be cousins, except for the One X's anorexia (or the iPhone 3G(s)' baby fat, again depending on your upbringing), and a couple slight difference that shift a not-so-memorable design of the HTC, to something unmistakable with Apple. Apple always shoots for a clean face to its devices, so the only distinct visual cues will be the home button and iOS UI. So, iPhones have a clean black or white front, but that is separated from the rest by a pop of bright, shiny metal. HTC devices often have two-tone fronts, where there is separation between the screen and body, but the body front just blends into the back, which has the odd downside of making the screen seem just a bit smaller than it really is (at least in photos). 

Samsung, intentionally or not, follows the same path as Apple to achieve memorable design. Sammy has already had to change the TouchWiz UI to make it look slightly less like iOS; but, as far as hardware, the company also relies on the same tricks as Apple to an extent. Sure, Samsung tries to use size as a distinguishing factor (Galaxy Note), or a niche accessory (the SPen), but more often it will rely on a large, distinctive home button (when the law allows) to brand its devices. Samsung has attempted to use the pop of metal to separate the front and back (Galaxy Note again), or have a distinctive camera housing on the back, but those aren't quite as successful, because Samsung doesn't use those types of features consistently enough on its hardware. Samsung could have shot for pseudo-branding by using the same distinctive rectangular camera housing on the back of its devices, but there's no real consistency.

Rather, Samsung has been most successful with iconic design when teamed up with Google for the Nexus S and Galaxy Nexus, which were simple clean slates when turned off, and the lack of distinctive features became a distinctive feature in itself. That's why we would be more inclined to believe the latest leaked image of the supposed Samsung Galaxy S III design, because it combines the distinctive look of the Galaxy Nexus (and who can forget the first image of that clean black slate on the fur blanket?) with the clear branding of Samsung's home button (and name under the speaker grill, of course.)

Hardware differentiation

Essentially, we just want to see manufacturers put a bit more effort into hardware design, and a little less into things like OS customizations. Supposedly, Windows Phone manufacturers have been clamoring for Microsoft to allow more software customization to allow for differentiation, but none have done much to differentiate the hardware, except for Nokia. We said it before, and still think it's true: manufacturers want to promote themselves, not whatever 3rd party OS they use. This is why manufacturers want to be able to customize Windows Phone, and don't do a lot of marketing for WP devices. And, it's why they love Android.

In the Android ecosystem, manufacturers have all essentially honed their respective software customizations, and are finally looking at hardware design (and we mean real hardware design rather than "put a slider keyboard on it" design.) Sony, HTC, and Huawei are all really trying to push for more distinctive design, while other manufacturers are trying to improve design by banking on the familiar (does anyone else think that the LG L series phones look a bit too much like a Samsung device with hard corners on top?) 

Sony is one of the few companies that can also leverage a logo in order to more effectively brand its hardware, but unfortunately, that logo is the distinctive Sony Ericsson logo, and it's unclear if Sony wants to use that since Ericsson has been absorbed. The logo has been spotted on the back of upcoming Xperia devices, but it is very small and arranged at the bottom of the device, which means it will be covered by a user's hand, where the Apple logo is higher, and can often be seen above a user's hand. 

Still, we hope that moving forward we'll see more experimentation by manufacturers to come up with creative designs, and use more distinctive materials. We're not even asking for completely new and radical designs (although that would be nice to see here and there), but more time spent on the small details of design that can make quite a bit of difference. Manufacturers clearly need to do something to bring up their visibility on store shelves, because right now it seems like Apple and Samsung are dominating that space, and by extension, dominating the smartphone market. 

title image via TechnoBuffalo



1. adjou

Posts: 106; Member since: Jul 06, 2010

Sony make good designs, but they are still lagging behind in terms of power and price. HTC got the power and the price right, but they need to stop recycling old designs and create something entirely new!

4. ivanko34

Posts: 617; Member since: Sep 04, 2011

I bought a Sony xperia active but it freezes, bad signal reception, battery too small. So I use Samsung galaxy s2 and note I dream Nokia firing his Microsoft boss so we could get back Betty good phones

26. Mozarrt

Posts: 301; Member since: Oct 08, 2011

You are comparing a phone like that to the SGSII and the Note, you should be shot my dear friend.

27. ivanko34

Posts: 617; Member since: Sep 04, 2011

Why pos ? Is it normal to pay a phone from Sony at 300 euros and it can't be used ? My dear ?

70. cyborg009

Posts: 119; Member since: Sep 17, 2011

u need to compare in the league.. u should have gotten xperia arc S or u can get xperia S now n then compare to gs2 n note !! But again it comes down to personal choice, something no matter how good u won't like if u don't feel for it and vice versa :)

41. Jonathan41

Posts: 532; Member since: Mar 22, 2012

HTC is not the company that I would be complaining about not changing their designs. Have you seen the iPhone 3 compared to the iPhone 4 there isen't much difference and who would consider any of Samsung's designes to be progressive. The SGII looks more like an iPhone than anything other Android phone on the market. What phone have you seen that looks like a ONE X or EVO 4G LTE?

55. MeoCao unregistered

So true, I think this site is biased against HTC. They even said One X was worse than Galaxy Nexus.

43. sgtdisturbed47

Posts: 966; Member since: Feb 02, 2012

The problem with brand/design recognition with the Android phones is there are FAR too many of them. You have several manufacturers (Samsung, Moto, HTC, Pantech, LG, Casio, etc), and most manufacturers release several devices each year. With all of the Androids in circulation, the only thing you can [usually] confirm on sight is that it's an Android phone. Besides that, most people just can't tell unless they have memorized every single handset. A handful of handsets are memorable and immediately [easily] recognizable. With the level of saturation of Android handsets, it's difficult for manufacturers to produce truly iconic devices. Plus, as soon as they release their "iconic" device, it's bested few months later with a slightly better model.

71. FAW-Q

Posts: 63; Member since: Jul 29, 2011

This is a reply to the article: "Nothing exceptionally bold or striking about an HTC phone" Are you kidding me?! HTC invented Bold and Striking with the HTC EVO 4G! If it hadn't been for the EVO, Androids would still be sporting 3.5 - 3.7" screens! All you Bloggers poked fun at HTC for making a phone with a 'huge' 4.3" screen and soon afterward, every Android phone were modeled after the EVO. Even Samsung knew about the potential of the EVO, that's why they pretended to have a shortage on their OLED screens to halt the production of the EVO all so that they could have a chance at selling their 4" iPhone wannabe Galaxy S. Samsung is just another Apple. It's a shame how people sporting Samsungs hate Apple so much, yet they carry in their pockets an iPhone wannabe.

72. Hunt3rj2

Posts: 396; Member since: Nov 11, 2011

??? The One X looks like nothing before it. The Evo 4G LTE has a distinctive design (half metal, half plastic, and a bright red kickstand down the middle), and the One S is definitely something based upon some previous designs, but yet completely different. It's obvious they listened to people like you, because they went with a completely different design for their One series. Show me a phone that looks anything like a One X. The distinctive camera hump, the speaker grilles, the dock pins, all of it.

2. Mehdia

Posts: 23; Member since: Apr 22, 2012

hand samasung & Apple very Good

3. audiblenarcotic

Posts: 114; Member since: Nov 16, 2011

Michael, I truly look forward to reading an article when I see your name on it. Yet, another great write up of some out of the box thinking in a place that seems to be filled with simply stoking the fire of each side of the fanboy fire.

5. sithman

Posts: 299; Member since: Apr 21, 2012

Samsung, and apple has the game sewn up... Htc is very good too, but Sammy, and apple r where its at.

6. ItsMeKervzC

Posts: 2; Member since: Apr 12, 2012

If Nokia has chosen Android, it will be like epic because: Design+Android+Nokia+Processor+Battery life Nokia's known for= EPICNESS! They could have beat Samsung because WP7 lacks apps unlike Android.

47. rudlie

Posts: 205; Member since: Mar 13, 2012

story still the same. why nokia was not choose android? because nokia see more worthed to apply windows mobile.

7. sarb009

Posts: 322; Member since: Jun 15, 2011

wtf iphonearena u ppl are sheep. u ppl put two pictures pic 1 vs pic 2 (for me they both look iphones but none is galaxy as its quite bigger than iphone and placement of sensors, front camera is on different place). what is the point behind this ? To prove that galaxy is copy of cr@pple iphone ? u ppl are the real sheep ( put i before sheep as that word, cr@pple and few more words related to cr@pple are not allowed on website of cr@pple's pet dogs)

17. HugeTroller

Posts: 80; Member since: Apr 27, 2012

lol stfu troll

20. MichaelHeller

Posts: 2734; Member since: May 26, 2011

The vs pic is the iPhone 3Gs and the iPhone 4 side by side with the home button removed. It's to prove my point that Apple hardware is relatively nondescript aside from a few branding points. Then there's the other pictures to illustrate all the other points about HTC, Samsing (with Google) and Sony. Thanks for playing!

29. KingKurogiii

Posts: 5713; Member since: Oct 23, 2011

lol that kind of proves a point about Samsung design. xD

57. ngo2dd

Posts: 896; Member since: Jul 08, 2011

Samsung has no Design their phone are more similar then anything HTC has and that what many people are say about HTC. Samsung need to grow a backbone and take risks for design.

39. gp284

Posts: 120; Member since: Feb 25, 2012

I don't think you read the article.

8. facelessbelief

Posts: 13; Member since: Apr 27, 2012

I think Motorola with the Droid Series have something. I Motorola has something something going for them. Minus being slow on ICS Update.

10. KingKurogiii

Posts: 5713; Member since: Oct 23, 2011

what are you talking about? they're keeping up with everybody else just fine on the upgrade front. xD

12. facelessbelief

Posts: 13; Member since: Apr 27, 2012

Minus the Atrix Series being sometime in Q3. Lol. I'm not complaining, I love 2.3 over 2.2 (Old Phone). So many less bugs at this point.

9. KingKurogiii

Posts: 5713; Member since: Oct 23, 2011

i do think that Apple makes better hardware decisions than Samsung but not by much and there is certain wisdom to each of their approaches. i'm still a big fan of Moto's industrial, heavy duty designs though. a Motorola is a MAN'S PHONE! >;]

13. facelessbelief

Posts: 13; Member since: Apr 27, 2012

You are right though, Motorolas new phones definitely feel more like a mans phone. I hold my Atrix 2, and it is solid and sturdy.

19. iamcc

Posts: 1319; Member since: Oct 07, 2011

A real man's phone would be two cans with a string anything more than that is for pussies.

21. KingKurogiii

Posts: 5713; Member since: Oct 23, 2011

that's the stupidest thing i've ever heard. real men are productive and efficient. you're not gonna be either of those with cans.

48. taco50

Posts: 5506; Member since: Oct 08, 2009

It's called sarcasm

56. KingKurogiii

Posts: 5713; Member since: Oct 23, 2011

what is sarcasm?

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