Dos and don’ts for smartphone makers in 2014

At this time of year we tend to see forward looking articles that discuss what we know to be coming up in the smartphone market, and what’s being peddled by the rumour mongers. I’m not going to go into all that here, though.

Instead I’m going to suggest some strategies that handset manufacturers can adopt across the board to help keep them on the straight and narrow, and produce phones we’re going to want to use next year. These strategies come in the form of a series of dos and don’ts, which follow. First, we'll start with what smartphone makers should avoid doing as we head into 2014...

Don’t think that budget is the same as cheap

Once upon a time, not so very long ago, it was possible to produce low cost handsets with low grade components and get away with it. You know the sort – phones with poor quality screens, a lack of internal storage, and suspect build quality. People were prepared to accept these things if they thought they were paying relatively little for a phone.

Now, however, times have moved on. We've recently seen Motorola launch the Moto G, a fantastic value handset with a large screen, good build, speedy processor and more. For £150 it is an absolute steal, and other manufacturers will have to up their game to compete and leave the cheap components out of the mix.

Don’t get hooked on bloatware

Okay, I understand that Sony wants to put a lot of apps on its Android handsets that tie in with the Sony ecosystem and that’s going to be a part of the appeal for many people, and maybe even a reason to choose Sony over other makers. That’s fine. But every piece of software that’s added to a handset has to earn its place.

I was pleased to see phone maker Prestigio’s take on this recently – part of the setup process on its phones is to choose whether you want to install certain add-on apps or not. It’s a nice touch.

Don’t think any old handset design will do

Smartphone design has settled down in recent years but there is still room for innovation. LG has started putting its power and volume buttons on the back of its phones, as seen with the LG G2, and this is a neat touch. Huawei can be quite innovative too, just look at the super-thin Ascend P6 – the thinnest phone in the world at 6.18mm. The design has a rounded bottom edge and a more squared off top edge. It’s different and stylish, and proves designers can do quite subtle things and still make a difference.

Don’t take your eye off the ball

The smartphone market moves very quickly, and a new innovation is always just around the corner. Handset makers need to be careful – produce a dud or two and they’ll fall down the rankings. Miss a trick or two that others have spotted and the same can happen. And this doesn't just pertain to the top-end of the market, either. Of course I’m watching with eagerness to see how curved phones like the LG G Flex (pictured above) do at the bleeding edge, but the mid-range is just as important. Handset makers have to both spot trends and make trends while avoiding the many pitfalls waiting to catch them out.

Now we've looked at the don'ts, let's concentrate on the positive and what vendors should aim to do in 2014.

Do tell the truth about memory

I remember the days when handset makers used to tell you how much memory was user accessible. They’ve stopped doing that now, instead telling you that a phone has "X" amount of total memory on board. However, some of the memory that’s installed is used for the operating system, plus any skinning and software extras that a phone maker provides, so you won’t have access to the full amount. When 16GB installed might mean 12GB or even less actually available, it's wrong for handset makers not to tell you the exact amount that you have access to. I think user accessible memory should be a key point to mention when it comes to detailing a phone's spec.

Do think before you add features

Now, this one will divide people I am sure. One of the key ways in which handset makers differentiate their wares from those of the competition is to add features. By and large this is a good thing, but sometimes it’s just weird. Do you know anyone who likes Air View? Well, okay, I might be being a bit harsh there. On the Galaxy Note it feels okay – you can hover the stylus over a diary entry to see the details, and that’s fair enough. But using it to preview video and images on the Galaxy S4 feels, well, unnecessary. Of course we all know that the granularity of control on Samsung’s handsets means you can turn Air View off. Hurrah! But the bigger point is that features are for users, so users have to like them.

Do test features before you unleash them

Samsung is my example once again on this point, I am afraid. Smart Stay is one of my favourite Galaxy S4 features. No matter how long or short your screen timeout setting is, if the front camera knows you are looking at the screen it’ll keep the display switched on. Now this feature never worked for me when it was first released in the Galaxy S3, and I know I am not alone. But in the Galaxy S4 it has stabilised and is now a very welcome feature. However, it should have been released in this state in the first place. Manufacturers need to test, test, and test again.

Do be careful about fingerprint-based security

Apple has probably started quite a ball rolling with the fingerprint sensor in the iPhone 5S. It’s a really good implementation of a technology that’s been popping up in handsets for years. Hewlett Packard is one of a number of handset makers that used it way back when, putting it on Windows Mobile phones, although these handsets were primarily aimed at business users. As well as Apple, HTC has got in on the fingerprint security act, but sadly with a less efficient implementation in the HTC One Max where the sensor is on the back of the chassis. Any handset maker looking at following this lead needs to get the technology implementation right. It needs to be intuitive to use, accurate, and easy to opt out of if a user doesn’t want to be bothered with it.

2014, here we come!

So, those are my dos and don’ts for handset makers for 2014. I’m interested in yours, too, so feel free to add your comments at the bottom of this article.

And while we wait to see what the new year holds I can be pretty certain that there will be some thrills, some spills, some surprises and some disappointments. Here’s hoping there will also be some five star reviews in the mix!