The Zimbabwean Perspective

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Editorial Smartphones Tech

Farewell LG Mobile: You deserved better……though we hardly knew ye

Deserved better, yet could have done better

So this week by far the biggest news in the tech sphere has been the departure of LG from the smartphone business, with the company shutting down it’s LG Mobile division and aiming to instead focus on it’s more profitable divisions like home appliances, smart devices, laptops and even future endeavors such as electric vehicle parts and robotics. It’s saddening news that many seemingly predicted, but still hurts many a tech fan when one takes a moment to actually see how much of an impact LG had had over the smartphone industry especially in the last ten or eleven years. In fact, it’s safe to say that LG is now worthy of the title of the most underrated smartphone company of the last 10 years, and as we take a brief look at LG’s best phones, we’ll see why they deserved more credit, but also why they shot themselves in the foot often.
Now I put the MKBHD video above not to necessarily distract from this whole deep dive but rather to add to it, as it’s another chronicle of LG phones including some feature phones and it’s first Android flagships. I didn’t really want to dive into that as much as I wanted to bring out some very basic facts about both me and my relationship with LG devices and smartphones in general. For starters, my daily driver phone is an LG V30, paired with Microsoft Lumia 540 and an occasional Nokia 3.2 as well. The V30 is my main phone however, and since I bought it in late 2019, it’s proven to be an amazing one at that. I had the choice between this phone , a Galaxy S8 and Note 8 and while I occasionally missed the stylus of the Note, I never once thought I chose the worst phone of the three. And that’s because I didn’t.
LG V30
Released in late 2017 (one of the best years for phones of the past decade), the V30 was essentially a sleeper hit of the year, being a feature-packed video-focused heavyweight meant to take on the Galaxy Note 8 and even the iPhone X. It gained some praise from some tech critics, but failed to raise a lot of fanfare despite most people agreeing it was a worthy contender with features the other two didn’t have. And that’s really what became the definitive story for a lot of LG’s best phones, because trust me there were more: being good, unique, even great phones, that most people didn’t really know about. Why didn’t they know about them? Well blame that on a combination of terrible marketing, dicey naming choices and even a poor distribution or market segmentation strategy outside of the U.S.A. . Basically, LG made great devices that no one heard of or people in certain countries couldn’t get their hands on, and that’s arguably the most hurtful part of this whole story.
And I keep hammering the point of devices because the V30 wasn’t a one-time fluke .Beyond the V30 , LG had the less earth-shaking V40, the close-but-no-cigar G5 with it’s modular phone approach, the delightfully amazing Wing which essentially lit up my love for phones again last year, and the G3 and G4 which were actually much bigger successes for the company in a time when Samsung and Apple hadn’t run away with the rest of the market, the former being LG’s greatest selling flagship phone. Add in the Nexus 4 and Nexus 5 phones that Android still hold as Holy Grails and even dart back to phones like the G2 and you begin to realise something: not only did LG make good phones, but they made pretty influential ones too. LG is the company you have to thank for
  • Multiple cameras on a phone(first came with the LG Optimus 3D)
  • 18:9 aspect ratios which most phones use(G6)
  • Wide angle cameras (G5)
  • Built-in Quad DAC’s for the best headphone quality(V20)
  • QHD display resolutions (G3)
  • Double tap to wake(G2)
And of course, coming up with these features first wasn’t what necessarily make all these phones good, after all there’s a whole list of gimmicks LG tried that didn’t work out, but chances are all those features listed above are more popular or mainstream now because of LG, especially since they made people take notice or envy those who bought the phones that had them. It’s just that LG seemingly depended on that capability to be innovative, “controversial” or buzz-worthy in tech to do most of it’s marketing in the biggest markets like the US and Europe, as opposed to actually going all out on a marketing budget the same way Samsung and Apple do to make you know what the newest iPhone or Galaxy S is called. That essentially meant that while the majority of tech media kept an eye on LG , the general public didn’t, let alone did they care what new phones it came out with. And we understand why LG had taken this approach, if the general amount of tech media talks about your devices, they’ll basically advertise those devices for free to the general public. It’s essentially why Samsung tries to be as radical as possible with it’s devices as well.
LG G5
However this approach has a limit, as chances are only tech fans , phone nerds, or really discerning buyers will know the devices even exists, let alone why it’s different or better than the competition. The average buyer who really thinks the world revolves around Samsung vs. Apple would never check out LG’s latest phone , let alone Sony, Nokia or even OnePlus. Even Huawei, which had actually successfully broken this duopoly was swept under the rug  as soon as the US-China trade war happened. Simply put, it’s hard to get people away from Samsung and Apple, and LG just didn’t put in the work to make people know it was out there.
And there’s another aspect to this whole situation that LG likely never thought of as well. The markets it chose and it’s market segmentation. Now maybe surprisingly enough for some people, LG in the US was actually the third biggest phone vendor in the country, higher than names such as Google’s Pixel line and OnePlus’. Now it only had 10% of the US market but considering it’s still one of the biggest smartphone markets in the world, that 10% is a lot considering OnePlus is definitely still competing for it. So why did LG quit even with this compensation prize? Well, for starters this dominance didn’t exactly mean high profits, as the LG phones people were buying were mid and low-end devices less than USD $500 and sold on contract plans that further diluted those prices. Add in the fact that even their $100 flagships drop in price in jaw-dropping ways and you’ll realize why they spent the past four to five years incurring losses. The second reason however, is more important to me: while LG definitely had a slight foothold on the US market, where was it in other markets? Well, if you see some of the stats charts below, LG wasn’t really anywhere else it seems. This is why every time I told people here I use an LG, they usually answered me with “LG still makes phones?”. The company’s global distribution strategy seemed to leave a lot to desired, with traditional big markets like the west being the huge focus while emerging markets or developing nations mainly got a cursory glance. A simple example would be South Africa, where Apple, Huawei and Samsung all tend to pitch their best devices less than a month after a US/EU launch yet LG tended to send those same forgettable mid-range and low-end devices that it sells in US contracts. And this is for understandable reasons, after all Africa(even South Africa) is still a less than reliable market for most, as sales numbers can be all over the place and the general GDP of most countries doesn’t support the sale of flashy $1000 devices. However a flagship device is called a flagship for a reason. These are the phones that get people’s attention, make them notice you exist in the market and make them think all your other products are good  just by association. If African customers never knew that there’s a compelling, impressive high-end V or G series phone then why would they care about some middle of the road K-(insert odd alphanumerical combination here) phone instead. You could blame the more messed up naming scheme as well, but the basic premise here still comes down to this: LG could have and should have done better in emerging markets. It might not have turned them into the number one smartphone brand, but chances are it would have kept their mobile business alive. After all in a time where Motorola is having a renaissance because of Latin America and even Google’s Pixel devices keep finding success due to India, developing markets are shaping the future of the smartphone wars especially since the big fish have pretty much already been eaten now.
And yes, that would have required some shifting in its device lineup as well. There should’ve been an LG device to compete with the Pixel 4A and 2020 iPhone SE in the same way Samsung put out the Galaxy A51 and succeeded it with the A52 this year. LG’s Velvet smartphone seems to have been a sign of some of this thinking, being an entry flagship/upper midrange device that could compete with Galaxy S20FE, but with the closing down of things we of course can’t be too sure. Personally however, I would say this is where LG lost it the most. Emerging markets could have been a second chance for the company, especially in a world were brands like Xiaomi, RealMe , Oppo , the aforementioned Motorola and even Nokia and HTC have found new life. It’s another bad decision to add to the list of plenty that a titan like LG had to make for it to fall, but it’s maybe the one that hurts me the most.
Now that LG has left the smartphone industry however, two other questions arise: who will/can replace them, as LG was essentially marked by experimentation and pushing the needle on their own way, and more importantly, what happens to the rest of the smartphone industry when companies like LG take their leave. The first question is actually much easier to answer, chances are no one can replace LG, after all they LG made their specific reputation, crafted their approach and became the company they were due to a number of factors unique to them , from being the other South Korean tech company that lived in Samsung’s shadow, to its different CEO’s different visions , to the different technical teams willing to throw whatever idea they had at the wall to see what works. In the same way HMD’s resurrected Nokia can’t quite capture the magic of the Nokia of old, even a somehow revived LG probably couldn’t be the LG we just lost, especially in these pseudo revivals we see where some old engineers at best are able to take the brand and use it for a completely new company. As for the second question? How this affects the rest of the industry? Well the easiest to see this is the basic need for competition and variety in the tech industry. We need both simply so that technology can become better and more accessible to more people. Apple are master designers and they’re products usually tend to be a showcase of that, but if they had their way we would all have to buy $1000 phones and $2000 laptops which you can’t even truly enjoy music, gaming or productivity on without subscribing to a service of theirs . Samsung makes envelope pushing tech, but sometimes it doesn’t always work as expected. We could go on and on  talking about Google, Microsoft and everyone else here but the basis always comes down to this, the reason technology improves each year is because all these companies are different, they come up with differing ideas and philosophies and it’s often the clash of those that creates great products as companies compete to see who comes out on top. Some companies do it better than other of course, and that’s how we have our hierarchies, but don’t think that part of Samsung and Apple’s success isn’t because of the pressure LG, Sony and OnePlus have put on them, neither should you disregard the many great devices that don’t come from the big 2 as well. And now that a company as big and as influential as LG is gone, there’s a lot to be a scared about. After all LG was so experimental because despite their smartphone division losing money, they could still get funds for research and development from the company’s other, more profitable divisions, the same way Samsung and Sony can. However considering Sony is aiming to turn it’s existing phones into camera and movie-focused media machines, while Samsung’s experimentation is getting relegated to only the folding phones, you can see why especially flagship smartphones have become boring and actually underwhelming the past two years. The Galaxy S21 is defined by more features being taken away from the phone than being given (SD Card, Headphone jack, Glass or Metal body) , while the iPhone 12 is a slightly refined but 4 year old design that really only gets 5G as a big selling point. Even OnePlus is more underwhelming this year and their whole point used to be the nerdy enthusiast phone that has specs to please fans. Essentially, smartphone development is already stagnating, and while part of that may be just because we’re reaching the peak of how far we can go with traditional smartphones, it’s also definitely because the leaders of the pack aren’t feeling the pressure they used to, and with LG leaving, they feel even less pressure to do so. And that’s the most worrying thought about all this, as I for one don’t want to see smartphones stagnate even more. There is perhaps a third question to be asked as well, with HTC, Nokia and LG having fallen, who’s next? But to be honest I don’t even want to get into that yet.

Instead, I’ll put my hand on my heart and salute LG in the way I know the company deserves. Farewell LG, you did your best, you deserved better, even if in many ways, you could have done better.

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