The five secrets to smartphone success

Sony wants to build a flagship superphone. CNET is here with a few steps it needs to take.

Sony will need to do a lot better than the Xperia TL if it wants to have a "flagship" smartphone. Sarah Tew/CNET

Building a smartphone isn't easy. Building one that's a blockbuster success is an even more Herculean task.

The latest company with big smartphone dreams, Sony, is reportedly putting together a flagship device to rival Samsung Electronics' Galaxy S III and Apple's iPhone 5, one that could debut as early as the Consumer Electronics Show in January.

But the smartphone business is a brutally competitive one, with only Apple and Samsung generating any success of note. Customers now fawn over the iPhone and Galaxy S phones, but little else. Fortunately, CNET is here and willing to unload a little wisdom onto handset vendors.

Without further ado, here are the five "S's" to smartphone success:

1. Strategy. As in, have a long-term one ready. Sounds pretty obvious, right? But take a look at the smartphone landscape, and you'll see a lot of companies scrambling to catch up or coming out with a hodgepodge of products with different partners.

Companies that want to be successful in this game need to show a little patience. Apple's instant success with the original iPhone was an anomaly, and not something other companies can easily replicate. While the Galaxy S brand is a global force now, it's easy to forget that the phones had a so-so debut on each carrier in the U.S. -- all with their own ridiculous names. Remember the Samsung Galaxy S II Epic 4G Touch? That was a real tongue-twister.

But with each new iteration, the Galaxy S branding took hold and consumer awareness and excitement began to build, leading to a phone that can now hold its own against Apple's once untouchable device. Any handset manufacturer looking for an immediate breakout hit though will be disappointed; buzz tends to swell only after a track record of solid products.

And even if a handset maker scores an early home run, the resulting spike in demand can catch companies off guard. Just look at what happened to HTC, which was once flying high after its first breakout hits, the Evo 4G and Droid Incredible. Its supply chain was stretched almost to the breaking point and sourcing enough components to to keep up with handset orders became a serious headache.

2. Specifications. If you're building a flagship device, don't just cram in all of the trendy features and shiny hardware in that you possibly can. Try to anticipate where customer demand and styles of usage are heading and build devices that satisfy them.

For example, HTC's foray into 3D screens and cameras, notably with the Evo 3D, was a terrible idea. Also, don't use components based on competitors in the market now, strive to plan ahead to what will still be a powerful phone a year out. This is a malady that plagues Sony in particular. Its Xperia NXT series (P, U, S), are perfect examples of phones that were obsolete even before they hit store shelves.

HTC is now getting with the program, focusing on creating phones with powerful imaging technology and high-performance cameras. Also, HTC President Jason Mackenzie told CNET that for the Droid DNA, his company focused on putting next year's specifications into a phone sold this holiday season .

At minimum, today's smartphone should come equipped with a high-end quad-core processor, 2 gigabytes of RAM, 16 gigabytes of storage (or more), and super high-resolution display packed to the gills with pixels. Other add-ons such as NFC and wireless charging are a plus, although they're slowly becoming standard features themselves.

Also, don't underestimate the design aspect of the phone. It sounds like another obvious one, but how many so-called flagship phones look like generic black bricks? Nokia has shown the carriers that color matters, and people like an alternative to drab-looking phones. The HTC Droid DNA, with metallic red accents and premium craftsmanship is another drop-dead gorgeous device.

Slim is also still sexy. While phone displays have gotten bigger and bigger, the best smartphone manufacturers are still able to pack all those features into a slimmer phone. Motorola's Razr line has done a good job of keeping the design sleek, and the Razr M in particular has been good at packing in more display into a smaller frame. All high-end smartphones should do away with as much bezel as possible.

3. Software. Plenty of handset makers feel they can get away with using an older version of Android. That may be true for mass-market smartphones, but not for your true flagship device. Sony's Xperia TL, its flagship phone for the holidays, finally got Ice Cream Sandwich, or Android 4.0, at a time when many high-end phones ship with Jelly Bean 4.1, or at least have begun to receive updates.

To better stand apart from the pack, the smartphone vendors all like to spread their own "secret sauce" all over Android. HTC has its Sense user interface, while Samsung has Touchwiz. The handset makers need to take a "less is more" approach with this, as any heavy-handed customizations only bog down the phone and often elicit complaints from hardcore Android fans.

For example, Samsung's Galaxy S phones started to get improved reviews only after it eased off on the TouchWiz customizations after subsequent iterations. To be fair, carriers share some guilt here. We're convinced they often deliberately withhold software upgrades on existing phones, only to use fresher Android flavors to push users to buy new handsets. Heck, not even the carrier-branded Google Nexus products are immune to this shady shell game.

4. Slick marketing. Even if companies build the most spec-ed out phone with the latest software it could still be a flop without the robust marketing support. Just look at HTC, whose One X was critically praised but still not successful enough to turn its dampening financial prospects around.

The Galaxy S III, meanwhile, has been a monster hit, and that's due in no small part to the massive marketing campaign that Samsung put behind the device. In addition, the ability to maintain the Galaxy S brand throughout its flagship products has been a powerful tool, something that others have emulated with HTC's One, Nokia's Lumia, or Sony's Xperia.

It's smart for Sony to keep the Xperia name consistent throughout its product, but the company's brand isn't anywhere near where it used to be, and has fallen on hard times . If Sony wants to be serious about the smartphone business, it needs to pony up and bankroll a much larger marketing campaign or risk disappearing in the noise.

And don't count on James Bond to get people to notice your devices either. The Xperia TL may be the most compelling handset Sony has brought to the U.S. market in a long while, but the phone only made a blink-and-you'll-miss-it cameo in the film "Skyfall," and didn't stand out from other average-looking smartphones.

How much firepower will you need? Just turn on the television and you'll likely be hit over the head with a Samsung ad for the Galaxy S III or Galaxy Note 2 -- it's easy to see Sammy poured a huge investment in raising awareness for the brand and phone. And while Apple has a huge amount of built-in buzz already, that hasn't stopped the company from heavily promoting its latest iPhone.

5. Support from carriers. Ultimately, carrier support can make or break a product. If a carrier decides to position one smartphone as its flagship product, chances are it will do well. Basically, that means the handset manufacturer has to kowtow to their demands while coming up with a standout product in hopes of getting full carrier support, both in the form of marketing support, as well as sales support in its stores. While retailers are slowly becoming a source for smartphone sales, a majority of consumers still shop in the carrier stores.

This is where Sony has made a critical error. So far, the company has only worked with AT&T when it comes to its high-end phones, and historically stuck with GSM-based technology. If Sony wants a real chance with consumers, it needs to get to as many people as possible, which means building phones for Verizon Wireless and Sprint. Verizon, in particular, is the largest carrier in the country, and it wouldn't be smart to ignore its base of customers.

No one is lining up at a Verizon store for a Sony phone. Roger Cheng/CNET

Too bad it doesn't have the clout to convince Big Red, or the other carriers, into rubber-stamping approval for its phones.

While exclusivity deals have been rendered less important over the years, they are still valuable tools for smartphones looking for some instant attention. The Droid DNA will likely do well as the exclusive flagship for Verizon.

At the same time, Samsung and Apple have shown that the best franchises maintain their brands across all carriers. The iPhone is just the iPhone, just like the Galaxy S III is the Galaxy S III everywhere, and not the Captivate, or Obfuscate. Sony has a consistent brand in the Xperia, but right now, it's not one that people care about.

Conclusion. OK, maybe these points aren't exactly so secretive. But it's amazing how many companies ignore some or all of these steps. Following through with all five S's is no guarantee of success, but it definitely puts that company on solid footing and a step up from the rest of the industry. For some of these companies, they can use all the help they can get.

About the author

Brian Bennett is senior editor for appliances at CNET and reviews a wide range of household and smart-home products. These include everything from microwave ovens, blenders, ranges and coffee makers to personal weather stations. An NYC native, Brian now resides in bucolic Louisville, Kentucky where he dreams of someday owning the sparkling house of the future.

Roger Cheng

Roger Cheng is the executive editor in charge of breaking news for CNET News. Prior to this, he was on the telecommunications beat and wrote for Dow Jones Newswires and The Wall Street Journal for nearly a decade. He's a devoted Trojan alum and Los Angeles Lakers fan. See full bio

 

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