I have just arrived in Barcelona for the Mobile World Congress, this is a make or break event for a number of smartphone makers, noticeably samsung and Sony who are both struggling to stop a slide in demand for their products.
Ironically it is Huawei and ZTE who are trying to wow visitors with the two Chinese brands setting up experience stores smack bang in the middle of Barcelona’s main shopping centre.
HTC kick off the first of several big press events with the launch of the all new premium M9, this will be followed by a Samsung event for the new Galaxy S6.
Also making announcements are Sony, LG, Lenovo, Huawei and Microsoft along with Intel who are slowly muscling their way into the smartphone and tablet market with a new generation of processors.
However it is Samsung who is facing their biggest battle as they try to stem the slide in its smartphone sales.
Smartphone sales have peaked with most consumers owning some form of smartphone, what vendors now have to do is deliver models that force an upgrade and that means delivering devices that are significantly superior to prior models.
The HTC M9 is a seriously innovative smartphone that sets new benchmarks for several smartphone brands in particular Chinese brands who are desperate to be taken seriously up alongside Apple, HTC and Samsung.
Consumers were underwhelmed by the previous two updates from Samsung and the Galaxy S5, which was launched at last year’s MWC.
Sales fell flat amid criticism that the cheap-looking plastic handset had not moved on enough from previous efforts.
The big handset makers know that their newest gadgets will be measured instantly against a tide of increasingly technologically advanced cut-price alternatives from brands such as Xiaomi, OnePlus, Wiko, Micromax and Coolpad all brands that are looking for ways to break into the Australian market.
Acer who have a strong smartphone presence in Europe and Asia have decided to not launch in Australia after extensive discussions with both carriers and retailers. They realise that the over $500 market which makes up 92% of the Australian market and is where all the margins are is “impossible to break into” without big marketing campaigns.
The sub $500 is all about volume and low margins, which is where the Chinese brands are trying to play.
“In such a highly mature smartphone market it is increasingly difficult for vendors to differentiate their high-end products,” says Annette Zimmermann, research director at Gartner, the technology research company.
Handset makers are throwing every technical upgrade they can into their devices. New versions will come armed with better cameras and screens, faster processors and the latest designs using metal alloys and shatterproof glass.
“We expect an even more intense competitive mobile phone market in 2015,” says Ms Zimmermann.
The battle to be biggest in the sector is as tight as it has ever been – Apple and Samsung shipped roughly the same number of smartphones in the last quarter.
But the direction of travel is markedly different, with Samsung shedding about a third of its market share in a year and Apple celebrating after an astonishing rise in sales on the back of its latest iPhone 6 launch.
Samsung’s share of the global smartphone market profits was less than 10 per cent in the last quarter, according to Strategy Analytics, with most profits being made by Apple.
“It is a very big week for Samsung,” says Ben Wood, analyst at CCS Insight. “They took a big misstep with the all-plastic S5 in 2014 and so will want to come out with something very different, and much more successful.”
This time, if the rumour mill is correct, the new Galaxy phone will be entirely re-engineered. The South Korean group is expected to ditch the plastic backing for a more solid metal and glass frame and include innovations aimed at catching the eye of a fickle consumer.
Samsung is not alone in needing a hit. HTC is lining up its first move into wearables with a smartband and an update of its flagship “One” phone range, while both Sony and Microsoft are bringing out their latest devices that analysts say will promise better cameras, screens and processing powers for lower prices.
All three groups need to prove to consumers that they can offer something different, according to Mr Wood. The goal is to lift them above the scores of smaller handset makers that claim small single-digit shares of the smartphone market with devices that for most people “will be good enough”.
However, telecoms executives are worried that there is little that Samsung – or any of the major manufacturers – can do to spur growth in the moribund market for mobile phones.
At the top end of the market, where the Galaxy S6 will be aimed, a dearth of innovation has meant that premium manufacturers of smart devices have struggled as cheaper rivals have quickly matched designs and specifications.
One executive at a leading mobile operator is blunt: “Smartphones are a done story. These are all now just screens – thinner, bigger, rounder, whatever. Move on.”
Analysts here hope there will be some signs of innovations from market leaders such as Samsung, however. Otherwise, the future of the smartphone market looks increasingly low on thrills, and correspondingly low in profits for companies that once reaped large rewards from the launch of their latest phones.