A few days before Mobile World Congress 2016, the time has come to look back on 2015 and assess the evolution of the mobile industry since its last major meeting. One trend even emerges from a retrospective: smartphones are more important than ever, but they don’t make the headlines the way they usually do.

Landmark mobile hardware stories over the past year have been Samsung’s Gear VR, camera dongles like the DxO One and Flir thermal camera, and keyboard accessories for tablets like the Pixel C and iPad Pro. . 2016 started off in a similar vein, with the biggest excitement to date reserved for the Bragi Dash wireless earbuds and the rumor that Apple has ditched the 3.5mm headphone jack in the upcoming iPhone.

LG bets its fortune on a modular phone

After years of rapid improvement, the smartphone is now adapting to its maturation. He’s a basketball superstar who no longer has the athletic ability to impress the whole world on his own – and now is the time for the supporting cast to step up. LG is set to lead that charge at MWC with what appears to be the most ambitious modular smartphone yet. All previous attempts to make smartphones with plug-and-play components have been either niche companies, start-ups, or exploratory, not yet commercial, ventures like Google’s Project Ara. LG is betting its fortune on a flagship product whose distinguishing feature is the items you can plug into it. Accessories.

This is of course not a sudden or unexpected change. The mobile industry is changing rapidly, but at a predictable rate. Samsung has had great success with its Galaxy Note since the first edition in 2011, introducing a stylus as a distinctive (and obviously desirable) feature in the phablet market. Apple’s iPhone and iPod spawned and supported an entire ecosystem of third-party dock and case manufacturers, and the Cupertino-based company grew its accessories business with the acquisition of Beats and the launch of its own battery box in 2015.

The benefits of mobile activity evolve along with the opportunity for greater innovation. In an age where even entry-level smartphones can feature unibody metal designs and decent cameras, distinguishing a device by hardware alone becomes nearly impossible. The differentiating characteristics move from the physical heart of the smartphone to its periphery and peripherals. LG wants to sell a unique smartphone and therefore builds a unique accessory ecosystem around it. HTC was one of the first companies to recognize the potential to differentiate themselves with good accessories, but they never really found the right formula with failed experiences like Boombass.

IPhone and Android can’t be fooled, but everything around them is up for grabs

Today, we envision a future where portable headphones, power banks, camera modules, and smart keyboard devices will have more intrigue and disruption potential than smartphones themselves. And who can forget smartwatches? With other portable devices, their current best use is as an extension of the smartphone. And while interoperability improves, most people who buy an Android Wear device or Apple Watch will add an additional anchor by keeping them in the Google or Apple ecosystem.

What every mobile maker wants is differentiation, reasons people choose to buy their hardware. For a long time, these could be delivered via strict specifications such as high-resolution, optically-linked displays or simply great cameras – the success of Samsung and Apple is testament to the fruitfulness of this strategy. But such benefits need to be refreshed with every iteration of a device, and the technology just can’t scale that fast for that long. a unique proposition.

It’s a beautiful phone, but what can you plug into it?

Apple’s Lightning headphone plan is as much a practical optimization of the use of space in the device (the absence of the headphone jack would open up room for other components) as it is of a deliberate ploy to keep iPhone users locked up. No other company could get away with it. such a daringly inconvenient change, but Apple has the scale and established user base to at least give it a try. LG is similarly betting on external components that make its next flagship distinct from all the others. And Samsung has built a flagship series around the Galaxy Note and its S Pen stylus, while moving forward with the Gear VR as a differentiator from its larger lineup.

The next MWC will be graced with a host of awesome new smartphones from a dynamic and flourishing market. There is no question that smartphone innovation will stop anytime soon, but it is obviously being slowed down. Accessories and peripherals are taking over, offering greater potential for hardware differentiation and profit, both short and long term. This means to us that all of the most interesting questions in 2016 will probably still be about the smartphone, but will lie outside the device itself.


Meet LG’s radical new flagship phone, the LG G5, which takes modular accessories to a whole new level: