Smartphone makers looked for a way forward at MWC 2023

Smartphone makers looked for a way forward at MWC 2023

Smartphone makers looked for a way forward at MWC 2023

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The slowdown was inevitable, of course. Nothing stays hot forever, especially in this industry. By tech standards, smartphones have done well, but in recent years device makers have been looking for the silver bullet to drive down sales. The arrival of 5G has been a welcome respite, but next-generation telecommunications standards don’t arrive every year.


It’s too early to say for sure whether the move towards device repairability amid new and proposed legislation will have a significant impact, but it was a highlight of this year’s show, which HMD has turned into a thesis. central. Regardless of how many people take advantage of the ability to repair their devices at home (or have them repaired by a third party), this is another potential problem for the growth of the industry.

Nokia booth at MWC 2023. Picture credits: Brian Heater

Foldables have apparently met a lot of expectations (especially for Samsung), but not enough to really move the needle. Phone makers have a refresh problem. For a long time, phone purchases were inexorably tied to carrier plans, placing devices on a two- or three-year cycle. Of course, the types of finance deals that allow you to spend less upfront have a way of getting you paid down the line.

There seems to be an imminent feeling that carriers and manufacturers are trying to revert to something similar with a new name.

“I think there will be more of a move towards models where the devices themselves are sold more as a service,” Google’s Sameer Samat told me this week. “I think there’s a lot of innovative work going on on the carrier side to figure out how you buy a cheaper device up front, use it and send it back after a while and get another device as part of your overall subscription.”


Picture credits: Brian Heater

In a world where we don’t own our movies, music, or software, the concept of “hardware as a service” is quickly emerging as its own way forward. Like the move from physical albums to Spotify, there are tradeoffs.

Some consumers will no doubt jump at the chance to upgrade the hardware without thinking, but isn’t owning your phone the same as not owning a CD or disc? Will it end up costing us a lot more? And at a time when most manufacturers are touting percentages of recycled materials, how much more waste will this model create?

There’s also a sense that phone makers have effectively painted themselves into a corner. The annual one-upmanship ultimately benefited consumers with much better devices. I’ve said it a bunch, but these days it’s hard to find a bad phone for over $500 – there’s also a growing number of good ones for less than that. A “budget” device these days often means settling for last year’s best chipset.

The best phones last longer, both in terms of durability and future-proof features. Having a three or four year old phone these days doesn’t mean the same as three or four years ago. This is also due, in part, to the fact that innovation has slowed. It became a battle for thumbs. When was the last time you saw a truly groundbreaking upgrade to last year’s model? Do moderately better screens, cameras, or even batteries force so many people to make impulse purchases?

“The smartphone market first grew because there was a really innovative product that was useful to customers,” Nothing’s Carl Pei told me in an interview this week. “Now it’s starting to decrease, because my phone is good enough. Why should I upgrade?”

A colorful 'Metaverse' logo is displayed on a stand at MWC 2023 in Barcelona

Picture credits: Natasha Lomas/TechCrunch

From a broader perspective, none of this is inherently bad. This means better products for consumers, as well as a reduction in the massive waste generated by the millions of people buying a new device every two years. We all tacitly understand why corporations and shareholders hope such cycles will go on forever, but many of us are glad they don’t. Businesses need one of two things: either turn the tide or focus on other sources of revenue.

“There will always be sales of new phones,” says Samat. “But I think you’re reaching the point now where it’s, for a lot of people, it’s their main computing device. So there are different and more interesting ways to look at the market. I think what is are you able to do with these devices? What does engagement look like? What services do you use? And how is it integrated with other parts of your life?”

The writing has been on the wall for a while. The downturn predates the pandemic by some time, but the past three years have certainly accelerated the trend. Closures, unemployment, inflation, supply chain constraints – you know the deal. Forward-thinking companies have invested heavily in content games. It has certainly paid off for Apple and some competitors as well. There were times when wearables and smart home devices seemed like they could help stem the bleeding, but while both have worked well for manufacturers, there isn’t the same sense of ubiquity.

6G is nothing beyond a number of different companies vying for adoption of their specific solution, so we’re looking at years before the first devices start arriving. At a conference that loves nothing more than promoting new technology, the potential 5G replacement only warranted one panel.

Mike, who sat on the panel, notes:

The first thing to note is that it won’t be happening anytime soon. Projections are that people like you and I won’t get 6G into our hot little hands until around 2030, so it might be best to appease your anger for now.

Anyone else feel like it’s 50/50 between the 6G and Mad Max scenario for 2030? Alright, maybe it’s just me. Even so, that seems incredibly far off and doesn’t do much for any of these short-term companies.

Smartphone makers looked for a way forward at MWC 2023

Oppo’s Find N2 Flip at MWC 2023. Picture credits: Brian Heater

Maybe foldables still have a lot of juice in them? If MWC was any indication, the makers certainly believe it. It seemed like every company had one this year. Well, everyone except Nothing.

“I personally think foldables are about supply chain innovation and not about consumer insights,” Pei said. “Someone invents OLED, and they can make a lot of money because it’s great technology. Then after a few years a lot more companies are making this, so they have to lower their prices. So they need to figure out what else they can sell with a higher margin. They are developing flexible OLEDs, which they can sell at a higher price.

Smartphone makers looked for a way forward at MWC 2023

Picture credits: Brian Heater

Sometimes it’s hard not to be cynical about this stuff. Ditto for concept devices, but as I noted in my “ode to weird tech” post, as someone who follows this stuff for a living, I’m a fan of weird for the weirdness, whether it’s the Motorola Rizr roll-up display or the incandescent OnePlus coolant. Certainly following the lead of the automotive industry in creating concept devices is a trend that will only expand.

OnePlus COO Kinder Liu told me this week that gauging consumer interest is one of “multiple reasons” his company is taking on the concept. He added, “Furthermore, we want to encourage continuous innovation within our company.”

Almost everyone I dealt with this week echoed the sentiment that smartphones are in a rut. For the first time, however, it is not a foregone conclusion that there is a way out.

Learn more about MWC 2023 on TechCrunch


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