Smartphones try fashion makeovers to stand out from pack

Smartphones try fashion makeovers to stand out from pack

SAN FRANCISCO – Bright colours, funky textures and personalisation are coming to a smartphone near you as mobile phone makers turn to fashion to buoy sales in a crowded market.

Apple Inc and Google Inc’s Motorola are among those trying to score style points as game-changing technological innovation becomes harder to achieve in the maturing business.

Since the first touch-screen iPhone hit the market in 2007, software features have become easier to replicate and improvements in speed, weight, display size and resolution have become routine. The explosion of me-too products is already hurting profit margins and nibbling at Apple and Samsung Electronic Co Ltd’s market share.

Time to bring out the paintbrush.

Apple has invited reporters to an event on Tuesday where it is expected to introduce new iPhones in a much broader palette of colours, perhaps even gold.

One-time leader Motorola, now owned by Google, is trying to win back consumers with the Moto X, relying partly on customised colors and, soon to come, engravings and unusual casing materials such as wood.

Robert Brunner, founder of design consultancy Ammunition and a former Apple industrial design chief, said personalisation is a well-worn tactic employed when a product’s uniqueness fades.

“As something becomes embedded in lifestyle and as it starts to become commoditised, people look toward more superficial design things to differentiate or at least reach more people,” said Brunner, whose clients have included Amazon.com Inc, Dell Inc and Nike Inc.

“And colors are the classic. If you do it at the right time, it will create a significant increase in sales every time.”

Much of the speculation around new iPhones this year has focused on colors and material, in marked contrast to previous years when hopes ran high for a breakthrough feature.

Personalisation is key

The consumer electronics industry lives and dies by innovation, and resorting to aesthetics is at best a stop-gap measure until frequently talked about new technologies such as fingerprint identification, holographics or flexible displays become reality.

Smartphone shipments grew 52 per cent in the second quarter, according to research firm IDC. But the market is getting crowded, with everyone from Alcatel Lucent to China’s Huawei producing an abundance of look-alike phones based on Google’s Android software.

Consumers face a sea of “rectangles that are black and white” that all use similar software and capabilities, said Carolina Milanesi, an analyst with research firm Gartner. “So you need that instant hook in the store to get people to pay attention, and that comes from the fashion and style.”

Nokia’s phone business, soon to be part of Microsoft Corp, was one of the first to try colour. Nokia’s Windows-powered Lumias came in a variety of shades from blue and red to yellow, helping boost shipments by 76 per cent in the second quarter and outpacing the overall market’s growth rate.

“We have always believed technology is highly personal, highly individual,” said Yves Behar, the chief creative officer at Jawbone, who has designed a successful line of customisable gadgets including the Up wristband and Jambox wireless speakers.“ We get more people wanting to customise their Jambox than we get people not wanting to.”

Making more stylish phones, however, can increase production costs and make inventory management and demand forecasting more challenging. Also, taste varies from region to region. So success in the fashion game requires mastering new supply chain and manufacturing skills.

“If you try to predict in advance precise numbers, it is a sure way to over stock or under stock,” Behar warned.

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