Six questions for Android OEMs in 2017

2016 was a year of change in the world of Android. Gone are the days where all you had to choose from was a minor revision of the same phone with a spec bump. The trend of smaller manufacturers making great smartphones for dirt cheap that started in 2015 got a major boost in 2016 with new players like LeEco enter the game.

We all saw some giants falter in 2016. Samsung’s struggles with the Galaxy Note7 were well documented, but Android staple HTC had another bad year too when the HTC 10 gained critical success but fell flat commercially. HTC failed to such an extent that it was rumored that the Taiwanese giant would sell off its mobile division (HTC denied those reports).

With the Android world in such a volatile spot right now, here are the questions we hope to see answered in 2017.

Where do Motorola, LG, and HTC go from here?

moto_zplay_droid_os
The Moto Z Play Droid

Motorola found a foothold with the Moto Z line despite speculation about the company’s future. LG released one of the best phones of the year in the V20 after falling flat with the G5 earlier in the year. HTC released some midrange options after its flagship failed to impress customers again this year. So, where do these three very different companies go from here?

Motorola’s future has been talked about at great length since it was acquired by Lenovo in October of 2014. We’ve seen some worrying signs like massive layoffs of Motorola staff, but also some encouraging ones like the rumor that Lenovo would quit making its own phones and go all in with Motorola.

The Moto Z lineup was a big departure from what Motorola had been producing beforehand. The glass sandwich (pictured above) felt much more premium than previous offerings, and the Verizon exclusivity helped Motorola’s bottom line through a massive advertising campaign that enabled Motorola to post solid sales numbers.  I called the Moto Z Force Droid the best phone Motorola has ever made in my review, and I actually liked the Moto Z Play even more than the Force due to its unbelievable battery life. By all accounts, Motorola had a good year.

v20_on
The LG V20

LG had a rocky start to the year but released arguably one of the best phones, the LG V20. The success of the V20 should take the sting off the dud that was the G5. LG deserves credit for taking a chance with a modular design of the G5, but the execution was so poor that I’ve personally warned off friends from buying it multiple times. LG will need to rebound if it wants to keep its early year flagship competitive.

I think LG Mobile’s future will be determined in 2017. If it can rebound with the G6 and improve on the V20’s successor, I think LG will have a long future in the mobile space. If both phones are commercial failures, we may see LG exit the phone market and focus on its consumer electronics and displays.

IMAG0737
The HTC 10

HTC is on the most unstable ground right now. As I mentioned before, HTC’s year was so bad that it was rumored that it would sell off its mobile division. Even though HTC denied those reports, it should give you an indication of the health of the company that it even has to defend itself from such claims.

The HTC 10 was by all accounts a really good phone. I didn’t have the pleasure of using one myself, but our Scott Webster named the 10 one of the best phones of the year in his review and had the following to say about the camera

We found the HTC 10 camera to be among the absolute best smartphone shooters we’ve ever tested. Time and again we were impressed with the shutter speed, focus, and colors. There are few things that we enjoy more about a handset’s camera than being able to set it on automatic and trust things would work. That’s exactly what we found with the camera in the HTC 10.

-Scott webster

But, creating a great smartphone isn’t enough. The market has spoken and consumers don’t want another iterative improvement from HTC. The HTC 10 looked exactly like the HTC One M9 and HTC One M8 and HTC One M7 before it. Consumers want something new, fresh, and powerful before they drop over $600 on a device. Getting rid of your standout BoomSound speakers does not qualify as new. While the HTC 10 might be an excellent phone, it’s not new and fresh. There is so much choice in the market right now that the HTC 10 was dead on arrival.

Can HTC come up with something new or has it lost so much talent and treasure that innovating is out of reach? If it wants to survive 2017, it better.

Can Samsung find redemption?

The biggest story in mobile phones this year was the disaster that was the Samsung Galaxy Note7. In a rush to steal headlines from Apple, Samsung threw caution to the wind and released the Galaxy Note7 a few weeks early. Well, it certainly stole headlines from Apple, but not for the reasons it wanted.

Exploding phones aren’t good for public perception (or the bottom line). Even though some survey results have been released stating that upwards of 70% of customers would still buy a Samsung phone despite the Note7 struggles, we learned the hard way in 2016 to take polls with a grain of salt.

galaxy-note-7
The Note7 was the best looking device of 2016

It cannot be overstated what a gigantic screw-up this was. Samsung pivoted the Note lineup from the power user’s dream to just be a trumped up Galaxy S device. It then destroyed what little good will it had left amongst Note enthusiasts by releasing a ticking time bomb. I know some will continue on with their Note7’s and feel like they are rebels, but limited battery capacity and no hope of ever getting security updates or new versions of Android are high prices to pay for feeling cool.

Rumors have been swirling about a redesigned and mindblowing Samsung Galaxy S8, and while that’s great Samsung needs to play a longer game here. If Samsung really wants to compete with Apple on its own turf, the Note8 will need to be the standout Android phone in 2017. Apple will be releasing its 10th anniversary iPhone in the fall of 2017 and will surely be bringing massive changes. Samsung will get pulled under Apple’s wake if it doesn’t bring its A-game.

Which manufacturer trying to break into the United States will have the best year?

OnePlus, LeEco, Huawei, Xiaomi, Gionee, Meizu, Ulephone, ZTE, Umi, Elephone, Leagoo… Besides being brands that you can import from sites like GearBest, they all share something else in common: they have little or no presence in the US before 2016 despite churning out excellent smartphones.

OnePlus and Huawei are leading the pack in the states  so far, with the others having varying degrees of success. The second half of 2016 saw LeEco make a push headlined by the attractively priced Le Pro3 but also a range of consumer electronics like 4K televisions, Bluetooth headphones, and a Super Bike.

But, who is going to be the standout in 2017? OnePlus will have the best shot since it released a really stellar phone in the OnePlus 3T late in 2016, but LeEco is pushing the boundaries of what you can expect to get for your money. I ordered a Le Pro3 during its Black Friday sale for $250. This is a phone with true flagship specs (Snapdragon 821, 4GB of RAM, 64GB of storage). While it’s an unreal expectation to think we’ll see flagship phones at that price point in 2017, we can expect prices to sink lower and specs to rise higher. Can these disruptive companies drag down flagship prices from the $650+ prices we’ve seen in the last six or seven years?

OnePlus 3
The OnePlus 3 has been one of the best values of 2016

The wildcard in this situation, in my opinion, is Xiaomi. It has released some of the most stunning phones in the last part of 2016. The Mi Mix has taken all the headlines due to its 6.4″ bezeless display, but the Mi Note 2 is another gorgeous device that gives the Note7 a run for its money as the sexiest phone ever produced.

mi-note2-leak-2
Xiaomi Mi Note 2 via Slashgear

Which company makes the biggest inroads? My bet is on LeEco… if they don’t run out of money first. Xiaomi makes some of the best hardware in the market but doesn’t seem to have the infrastructure in the US to grow fast enough. OnePlus is another strong contender but its prices continue to rise with every new phone. If OnePlus starts to release phones that play in the same waters as the Pixels, Notes, and iPhones of the world, can it stay above water or will it sink like other contenders?

Where do the Nexus and Pixel programs go from here?

Google shocked fans of its Nexus program this year. Instead of giving us our yearly refresh of a moderately priced flagship with stock Android, Google decided to shutter the Nexus phones and go with a higher-end Pixel lineup. This was a monumental shift for Google and many Android enthusiasts were less than pleased with the new direction.

google-pixel-phone

Gone are the co-branded devices with HTC, Samsung, LG, and Huawei in favor of the Pixel, phone by Google. While Google still contracts out the construction of the devices (HTC for the Pixel and Pixel XL), Google is running the show. Optimizing the hardware and software in many of the same ways that Apple does with the iPhone. This is truly a Google phone instead of a joint project.

For years people have been clamoring for Google to make its own iPhone-like devices. Now we have them, but it appears to have come at the cost of the Nexus program. There have been tweets from so-called insiders that claim the Nexus program will live on, but it’s hard to see a path for it now. Google’s phones from here on out will definitely be Pixels, but could we see more Nexus tablets or perhaps a Nexus wearable like a smartwatch? Doubtful, but only time will tell.

Many are eager to see where Google will go in 2017. What will the successor to the Pixel and Pixel XL look like? Will we see an evolutionary device that resembles an “S” upgrade (iPhone 6 -> iPhone 6S) or will we see an entirely new device? Google will be fighting against Apple’s 10th anniversary iPhone and the Samsung’s Galaxy Note8 in the fall of 2017 which means there will be heavy competition, to say the least. Does Google continue on with Stock+ Android or will the search giant start implementing its own skin and features into its devices much the same way Samsung, LG, HTC, and more do?

Will tablets make a comeback or die a slow death?

Believe it or not, tablets used to be a pretty important part of Android’s ecosystem. Hell, there was even a special version of Android (3.0 Honeycomb) just for tablets. Google teamed up with HTC, LG, and Samsung in the past to make some excellent Nexus tablets and Samsung continues making Galaxy tablets that seem to be the only option out there.

The biggest Android tablets in terms of sales in 2016? Amazon Fire tablets. You’d be forgiven if you didn’t know Fire tablets run Android since Amazon makes no mention of it. Fire tablets use a forked version of Android with a heavy skin on top that ship without many Google services that you would see in a normal Android tablet (like access to the Play Store).

So, what happened? Where did all the momentum of Honeycomb, Nexus hardware, and a huge app library go to? Well, look at your phone. Now look back at this article. Now imagine what a tablet can do in 2016 that a phone can’t. Not much, right? The ever increasing phone display has basically killed off Android tablets.

2. Nexus 10
My all-time favorite tablet, the Nexus 10

In a highly unscientific survey of the AndroidGuys staff, the most common answer of why you’d use a tablet over your phone ended up being to watch movies on a trip. Other popular answers included playing games (especially popular among our Nvidia Shield owners) and productivity software, but most agreed that an iPad is better suited to that due to app disparity. Most of our staff said there’s no use for a tablet when we have phones with displays almost 6″.

Tablets had a place when our phone’s screens were 3.5″. A 7″ or 10″ tablet just doesn’t cut it for most people anymore when tablets can cost anywhere from $200 – $600 and don’t offer more than a little screen real estate. Are you going to pay that just to watch PewDiePie on a bigger screen? I didn’t think so.

The outlook for tablets isn’t good right now. Someone is going to have to come out with a killer feature to make people want them again. Lenovo is trying with its new Yoga Book, but the option of getting the tablet with Windows makes the Android version far less desirable.

In a world where even the iPad’s sales are down, can the Android tablet market thrive again or will it wither away and die?

What is the next big trend?

Curved displays. Modular designs. More glass than you can shake a stick at. These were the trends in 2016. Samsung scored big with the beautiful Samsung Galaxy S7 Edge and others like Xiaomi are now trying to emulate the curved display design. LG and Motorola both released what it felt like the future of modular smartphones would look like to varying degrees of success. Almost every phone released in 2016 had a glass front and back… or so it felt.

But, what is the next big trend? What are we going to see pop up in 2017? Sure, some OEMs are going to be playing catch-up, but what will the trendsetters do?

Galaxy S7 Edge

I hope 2017 brings a return to an old trend. Durable phones with big, removable batteries. Don’t get me wrong, I love how a glass phone feels in my hand and I love how it looks even more, but I want a phone that doesn’t give me a heart attack if I drop it on the floor. I’m currently reviewing the LG V20 and I know I don’t have to worry about it taking a fall or sliding off a smooth surface. Getting that piece of mind back is pretty nice.

I think the next big trend will be Services. We’re already seeing Apple moving into more of a services company than a hardware company, and I think Google is going to head there too. Google HAS to figure out its messaging ecosystem and fast. Apple still dominates with iMessage and Google’s four (or more) app strategy is a complete mess.

googles-messaging-apps

Google offers streaming music, streaming video, books, and pretty much every kind of media you could think of. But now is the time to bring it all together into one service. One subscription for Google Play Music, YouTube Red, a Kindle competitor, an Audible competitor, and streaming movies just makes sense. All of these huge companies (Apple, Amazon, Google, Microsoft) want to lock you into an ecosystem so it’s harder to move in between them. What’s easier than getting all of your media from one company with the ability to cast it to any TV or speaker connected to a Chromecast or a Google Home?

What do you think? What will be the next big trend for 2017? What do the futures of Samsung, LG, HTC, and Motorola hold? What do you want to see from Google next year? Let us know down in the comments.