Innovative interfaces may not boost smartphone sales by much, analysts say

Something more revolutionary is needed to catch the imagination of consumers

LG Electronics and Motorola Mobility are betting on updated user interfaces on smartphones in a bid to differentiate their latest products, but analysts aren't convinced that's enough to break Apple and Samsung's dominance.

As smartphone design and hardware specs grow more similar, vendors are increasingly turning to the user interface as they try to differentiate their products and get people to upgrade in a saturated market.

The two latest examples are Motorola's Moto X and the G2 from LG Electronics. The latter has been equipped with buttons on the back, which can be used to control the volume and turn on the phone as well as access some apps. Motorola is betting big on voice control and users can also turn on the camera with "two quick twists of your wrist."

"What LG is doing with buttons on the back really typifies the challenge most manufacturers are facing when it comes to differentiation. It is really becoming harder and harder now, and it's difficult to see how the buttons will make much of a difference," said Geoff Blaber, analyst at CCS Insight.

Motorola is going much further in trying to fundamentally change the way users interact with their phone, with voice and gestures, but Blaber still thinks Motorola will struggle to turn the Moto X into a success.

Blaber isn't alone in doubting that these additions will make much of a difference to consumers looking at crowded store shelves.

"I just don't think it's enough. We have reached a point where a major change is needed to boost sales. All the vendors, including Samsung and Apple, have lower forecasts going forward," said Bengt Nordström, CEO at market research company Northstream.

Neil Mawston, executive director at Strategy Analytics, agreed: "Our view is that the primary input mechanism for mobile phones is the fingers, and this wave of secondary input mechanisms that is emerging is a niche at the moment ... and is likely to remain a niche for the foreseeable future," he said.

Also, changing the way users interact with their phones doesn't come without risks. For example, when Apple introduced voice-powered Siri, expectations were too high. The subsequent criticism of Siri took a bit of polish off Apple's brand, and the same can happen to other vendors if their innovations don't work well, according to Mawston. Also, if a feature doesn't immediately hit consumer expectations, which Siri didn't, it can be difficult to get consumers to give it another go, according to Blaber.

"I think the key is bringing on these new technologies softly, softly, and almost always in tandem with another means of access. That is what Motorola has done with the Moto X," Blaber said.

Still this trend isn't going away, and consumers can expect more features that use eyes, voice and gestures to control their devices, the analysts agree.

This is happening partly because as smartphones are getting bigger, one-handed operation is becoming more cumbersome. So kudos to LG for trying something different to address that challenge, Blaber said.

Ultimately, success depends on whether a user interface change truly improves the user experience or if users just see it as a gimmick, according to Nordström.

The struggles of makers of Android-based smartphones apart from Samsung are well documented. LG has been the most successful in its turnaround efforts and shipped about 12.3 million smartphones during the second quarter this year, while Motorola managed only 2.3 million. Samsung shipped over 73 million Android-based smartphones, according to preliminary estimates from IDC.

Send news tips and comments to mikael_ricknas@idg.com

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Tags Android OSsamsungAppleconsumer electronicsLG ElectronicsAndroidsmartphonesMotorola Mobility

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Mikael Ricknäs

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