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Opinion: The three phone play – are Android OEMs finally starting to get it?

On the run up to MWC, everyone was expecting Android OEMs to come out guns blazing with the latest and greatest specs. Everyone would be pushing Nvidia’s latest quad-core monster of a processor, Tegra 3, along with larger screens, in resolution and size.

That happened to a certain extent, and it certainly wasn’t surprising (if anything, a little disappointing) to see the push towards 4.7-inch devices with quad-core processors. It was refreshing then to see a certain level of restraint, and indeed a certain level of clarity, when Sony and HTC’s announcements came around.

It’s been a long standing theory of mine that if you’re an Android OEM, your goal should be simple: offer a smartphone for the low, mid, and high end of the market on a recurring schedule that all manage to balance price vs performance. It’s not a totally new concept either, because Apple already employ this strategy. They have an iPhone for every price point of the market: the 3GS is the budget option, the 4 covers the mid-range, and the 4S is the latest and greatest – all are priced accordingly. In the next couple of weeks, Apple willl do the exact same thing with the iPad.

You’d think this was the hardest thing in the world to achieve looking at what some Android OEMs have done in the past. Some days it really felt like I was taking crazy pills: phones were hopelessly mispriced, or released months after their announcements. Other companies, like Samsung, seem to favour the shotgun approach, flooding the market with as many iterations of phones as they can possibly manufacture.

Sony seem to finally get it. Whether it was lacklustre sales, the looming threat of Samsung, or a renewed sense of direction after the Ericsson buyout, their MWC press conference and strategy made perfect sense to me.

Like Apple, Sony are taking the three phone approach. the Xperia S addresses the high-end of the market, the Xperia P slots nicely into the mid-range, and the Xperia U brings a budget friendly offering. The specs on these devices won’t blow you away (the Xperia S “only” has a 1.5Ghz dual-core processor), and you could argue that they don’t excel in any one particular area, but the key to surviving the long game is simply being able to produce the all-rounder. Each phone offers the same design and overall user experience, but with specifications relevant to each part of the market.

  

HTC have slowly come to realize this too. Again, three phones announced at their press conference, each attacking different price points with the specs available, each with a similar release date. HTC were careful to point out how they carried features across to their new One line too – all have improved cameras with a f/2.0 lens, and paired back Sense.

Frankly, it’s bizarre it took them this long to realize it. If you streamline your product line, you’ll also be able to focus on a better software experience, not to mention being able to update Android when updates do come along. Take the 2011 range of Sony-Ericsson phones: the company has pledged that they’ll all receive Ice Cream Sandwich, which means providing updates for eleven different phones. That’s ignoring the announcement of the NXT series, all running Gingerbread, in which case the count is fourteen. That’s insane.

That’s not all there is to it, of course. As much as you need a balanced phone portfolio, ecosystem also plays a huge part in your chances of success, something that no Android manufacturer has fully figured out yet. At the rate everyone is going, they’ll be doomed to middling hardware profits – much like the PC industry – rather than grabbing hold of where the real lion’s share of profit is: software and content.

It’s too early to tell if using the three phone play will pay off for Sony or HTC this year, and I can only hope they don’t fall back on old habits and announce yet another high-end superphone in three months. There’s also the small matter of exactly when their new phones will be shipping: they’re no good to anyone if they arrive months and months after everyone has forgotten about them. The competition never sits still either.

Sony and HTC realize they have a problem, and have made moves to recitfy it. This is only the first step, and it might be a small one (some might say unimportant), but it gives me hope. Let’s hope the other OEMs realize this and also put down the spec pipe.

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