Samsung, HTC and Sony stepping up their smartphone game at Mobile World Congress

This year’s Mobile World Congress will soon be upon us, with numerous handset makers heading to Barcelona starting tomorrow to unveil their latest offerings.

Chief among these will be their high-end flagship devices. In this space, they will be battling to take a bite out of an extremely ripe Apple, with the American giant having already released not one but two new high-end devices to great acclaim back in September.

With the iPhone 6 and the iPhone 6 Plus as part of its arsenal, Apple recorded its largest quarterly profits ever – its fiscal first quarter earnings tipped the scales at an eye-popping US$18 billion. This not only made the first three months of the year Apple’s biggest quarter ever, but also the biggest quarter by any company in history. While Apple’s portfolio ranges from desktops to laptops to music players, the real stars of the show were the two new iPhone models, with combined sales totalling 74.5 million units and accounting for the vast majority of the vendor’s monster revenue.

With Apple’s offerings already in the retail space, attention now shifts to Barcelona, where a host of eagerly anticipated new Android offerings will be unveiled, including handsets from Samsung and HTC. The former has had a tough year; its Galaxy S5 device did not make the waves the vendor had hoped for, and its earnings and market share fell as a result. It is fair to say that Samsung’s next move will be a big one.

The Galaxy S6 is being referred to as Project Zero, in essence serving as a complete rethink of the phone altogether. With the Galaxy S6 the company is starting from the ground up. The phone is expected to feature more consistent build quality with aluminium materials, and there is even talk of a glass casing on the back.

Among the most criticised elements of Samsung’s previous flagship devices were the inclusion of bloatware. This time around, Samsung’s TouchWiz software is anticipated to be toned down in comparison to previous offerings, and the rumour mill also has an Edge variant in the offing, as is the case with the Galaxy Note 4. A QHD Super AMOLED display and 20 megapixel camera are among the other goodies hoped to be unveiled in March.

Now over to HTC. The vendor might not be comparable to Samsung or Apple in terms of size and sales, but that did not stop it from releasing one of the most well-received flagship Android devices of last year, the HTC One (M8). Encased in aluminium and featuring a sharp display together with the vendor’s renowned BoomSound front-facing speakers, the One (M8) has turned many an admiring head since hitting the market early last year.

The HTC One (M9), code-named Hima, is expected to continue down the same proven path in terms of design language and build quality. The biggest improvement will come with the device’s rear camera.

The existing Ultra Pixel shooter is the one area where the phone is criticised. It will finally be replaced with a 20MP camera, arguably making the One (M9) a no-compromise smartphone. There is even a good chance we may see it in two sizes, mimicking the approach adopted by Apple for its sixth-generation iPhone.

Aside from the anticipated Barcelona unveilings of the Samsung Galaxy S6 and HTC One (M9), it is worth mentioning two new offerings from Sony and LG. The latter’s G3 handset garnered tremendous reviews last year, and we expect its G4 successor to debut in the second quarter of the year.

As for Sony, the company is sailing in turbulent waters as it tries to turn things around for its ailing handset business. The vendor’s current Z3 device has been well received, but this has not translated into the kind of high sales volumes the vendor was hoping for. The Z4 was originally slated for an unveiling in Barcelona, but it now look as though consumers will have to wait a little longer to see it.

The smartphone market has been heating up over the past 12 months, with some of the biggest names in the business coming under intense pressure from their rivals. As such, this year will be a critical one for vendors looking to hit back and reassert themselves in the field.

Flagship devices may represent just one slice of the mobile cake, but it is a serving that is growing by the quarter, particularly in this part of the world. IDC data shows that more than 40 per cent of all smartphones shipped to the GCC last quarter fell into the $450 and up price category. And while building a great flagship device is obviously key, how vendors then market their devices and approach the distribution channel will ultimately decide how much of that cake they get to eat.

Saad Elkhadem is a research analyst at IDC Middle East and Africa.

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