Mobile World Congress shows handset design running out of steam

Commodification of smartphones may be the biggest story at telecoms trade show

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Tens of thousands of technology experts will gather on Monday at the Mobile World Congress trade show to see companies unveil their latest smartphones, tablets and wearable connected devices. But will they be excited by what they see?

There is a “growing view that design features of smartphones have reached a plateau”, says Ben Wood, an analyst at CCS Insight. It is a problem for companies hoping to encourage customers to upgrade their devices.

This year, the most high-profile launch is likely to come from South Korea’s Samsung, which is expected to reveal a flagship Galaxy smartphone, the S7. Analysts predict the device will contain several innovations and a more advanced processor. But in many respects it is expected to be much like the previous iteration — the S6 — with a similarly tapered “Edge” version.

Sony, meanwhile, will show off its latest Xperia handset, likely to come with a better camera. LG, Huawei and HTC will also launch devices.

Mr Wood expects improvements in core features such as battery life, camera performance, screen technology, ruggedness and memory capacity. But there is unlikely to be any dramatic departure from previous ranges.

While Mr Woods says there are likely to be some “free-form” phone prototypes that move away from the traditional rectangle, these will not come from mainstream phonemakers.

Virtual reality headsets may also provide some excitement, with both HTC and Samsung pushing platforms.

However, commodification of the smartphone may be the biggest story at the conference, with a large number of high-spec devices on show from Chinese brands such as Alcatel OneTouch, Lenovo, Xiaomi and others.

These companies are producing smartphones similar in design and technology to devices from Sony and Samsung, but often undercut their rivals on price. They are causing established companies to lose market share.

One of the most interesting launches will come from Xiaomi, which has promised to give details about the forthcoming Mi 5 smartphone at an event hosted by ex-Google executive Hugo Barra. Analysts expect that the phone will carry a relatively high price, showing that Xiaomi will compete as much on quality as cost.

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