Company / division: LG
Though Google spent much of its I/O keynote talking about apps and features like Photos and the Assistant, it did devote a few minutes to the topic of AR and VR, which will have a second deeper-dive keynote of their own tomorrow. On the VR side, the key announcement is that Google is extending the Daydream platform beyond mobile VR to standalone headsets, which in the first instance will be built by partners Lenovo and HTC and supported with chips from Qualcomm. Daydream so far has been limited by the fact that the biggest Android smartphone vendor has its own competing platform, so the news that Samsung’s Galaxy S8 phones will support Daydream through a software update in the summer is a big deal. My guess is that Samsung will still favor its own Gear VR system with its usual bundling and discounting deals, but the fact that Daydream View and other compatible headsets will now work with Samsung devices should increase its appeal. Daydream’s system is better than Samsung’s in a number of ways, though the recent Gear VR update closes the gap a bit, so the playing field should be a leveled a little going forward. Also worth noting are a couple of AR announcements, including a new “Tango phone” to support Google’s indoor mapping technology, and VPS, an indoor equivalent of GPS which will enable precise directions within large stores and the like. Neither of those feels remotely mass market yet, which means Google’s AR efforts are far more marginal than the phone-based efforts from Facebook and Snapchat (and likely soon Apple too). Interestingly, VR head Clay Bavor outlined his vision for the space in a blog post today too, and it’s remarkably similar to Microsoft’s in that it envisions a continuum or spectrum that includes both VR and AR, though Bavor’s favored term is immersive computing rather than mixed reality and he’s less pejorative about the VR and AR terms everyone is already using.
LG Confirms Interest in its Display Business, Doesn’t Mention Google – Android Authority (Apr 12, 2017)
The Ars Technica view I’m linking to here is fairly negative on LG’s new flagship, while the Verge review also linked below is a little more positive. Both note that this is really the first widely available flagship phone to go down the “much smaller bezels” route, but while the Verge review focuses on that fact, the Ars review suggests that it will quickly be overshadowed by the Samsung Galaxy S8. The fact that this phone is launching to the public a week after the Samsung event certainly doesn’t help – almost anyone considering it has to at least be thinking about the S8 as an alternative – but until reviews are out, writing off the G6 so quickly feels premature. At least some early indications suggest that there may be one or two concerns with the S8, though I’ll withhold judgment until more thorough reviews are out. Both of these G6 reviews, though, highlight some flaws, notably some odd design choices in the hardware (poorly rounded display corners, tricky home button/sensor placement and size) and counter-productive software customizations on top of stock Android. This definitely looks like a better phone than last year’s G5, but I’m not convinced it’s going to help LG have a much better year this year than last as a result. One more thing worth noting – it seems LG has a version it’s selling in Korea with an integrated DAC which dramatically improves audio quality, but that won’t be available in the US, an odd decision.
Google has today announced a patent licensing alliance which is intended to provide cover to member companies using each other’s patents. The idea is that any member can use any other member’s patents without fear of being sued, something that’s actually been quite common between members of the broader ecosystem over the last few years. The alliance has only nine members to start with, about half of which are smaller smartphone brands, but the members do include Samsung, LG, and of course Google itself, as well as Foxconn. Those members alone apparently have 230,000 patents between them which will now be freely available to other members within the context of Android devices. This is a fascinating move, and it’s impressive that Google was able to get Samsung and LG in particular on board without also having some of the other big Android vendors. Of course, none of this will stop these companies from suing those outside the Android ecosystem (or this alliance), but it might help temper some of the animosity that has sometimes characterized competition between Android OEMs.
LG lures G6 shoppers with a free Google Home – Engadget (Mar 16, 2017)
The LG G6 is one of the first Android phones which will launch with the Google Assistant onboard, so there’s a logic to tying in the Google Home device as an add-on, though this is still a first for Google, which didn’t even bundle the Home with Pixel sales (it did bundle the Daydream View VR device with early sales, however). Promoting the Google Home as a good companion to other Android phones beyond the Pixel is important – both the installed base and future sales of those phones are going to be massively larger than the Pixel, and so most sales will go to these owners (or iPhone owners). This obviously echoes what a number of smartphone vendors have done in the past with other accessories, though usually ones more directly tied to smartphones, like smartwatches.
New LG 5K UltraFine Display models work properly near wireless access points including routers – 9to5Mac (Mar 13, 2017)
Just a short update on this earlier story about Apple’s LG monitor partnership, which I’ve covered here. It’s obviously good news that LG has produced a monitor that’s now unaffected by nearby wireless routers, but still bad news that its first version had this fundamental flaw. That speaks both to LG’s lack of quality and Apple’s lack of quality control as a partner, especially for the first monitor from this partnership after years of Apple making its own monitors. Hopefully this is a one-off for both companies, but future monitors from these two will be subject to that much more scrutiny as a result.
After last year’s largely unsuccessful focus on modularity, it looks like LG has gone back the other way, with a really solid, slab-like phone that trades removable items for dust and water resistance. We’ve seen phone makers go for durability as a selling point before, sometimes in a core model and sometimes in a rugged variant (Samsung favors the latter), and it’s rarely enough to act as a big differentiator, especially in a premium phone. But it looks like LG is also majoring on the combination of a really big, high-res screen with small bezels and better one-handed use. It’s always interesting to watch the pendulum swing back and forth between masses of clever features and simplicity with the Android vendors, and we’re seeing that here. I’m betting this phone does better than the G5 last year, but LG continues to be in a tough spot in smartphones – it’s losing money every quarter, sales are falling, and it’s stuck in that unfortunate middle within the Android ecosystem where it’s neither at big scale in premium devices nor price competitive enough to do really well in the mid market. I don’t see this phone dramatically changing its fortunes.
Android Wear and LG Watch Reviews Are Mixed at Best (Feb 8, 2017)
It looks like Google and LG lifted an embargo this morning on Android 2.0 and LG’s two new smartwatches. My first reaction to the reviews here is that the new watches sound pretty terrible, and that we’re back to grading these smartwatches on a curve, something I first noted back in 2014 before the Apple Watch was announced. The Verge review is illustrative – it notes that the Sport version is uncomfortable and enormous (it doesn’t fit under shirt cuffs), doesn’t have interchangeable bands, the Android Pay app takes too long to load, and can’t be used while swimming; the Style version lacks most of the more interesting features on the Sport, looks cheap, and the batteries on both versions struggle to make it through the day, while Android Wear 2.0 is pretty buggy. The Verge’s rating? 7.1 for both. Their rating for the Apple Watch Series 2? 7.5. Android Wear has struggled to take off ever since it launched – it’s just never felt like Google or its OEMs understand that watches are fashion accessories, and need to be designed for that job. Packing a billion features into these watches isn’t going to cut it, especially if they don’t work well, or they end up looking ridiculous on your wrist. I’ve seen nothing here that makes me think Android Wear 2.0 is going to do any better than the previous versions.
LG has redesigned its 5K Mac monitor so it can handle being placed near a router – Recode (Feb 3, 2017)
This has been a bizarre story – LG somehow produced a monitor for its partnership with Apple whose performance was seriously affected by close proximity to a router, something I’m guessing isn’t uncommon in home offices around the world. This is an unfortunate side effect of Apple’s decision to cede its first party monitor role to a partner – it no longer has control over quality and performance in quite the same way. Buyers and potential buyers had already been complaining that the monitor doesn’t look nearly as nice as Apple’s own, but that there should be serious performance issues too makes it worse, especially given the high prices (before discounts) of these monitors.
LG posts $224 million loss as ‘weak’ selling G5 smartphone drags it down once again – TechCrunch (Jan 25, 2017)
LG’s smartphone business has been struggling for at least 18 months now – it briefly went into the black in late 2014 and early 2015, but with that exception has been struggling for even longer, posting losses for the last six straight quarters and eleven of the last twenty. Shipments are falling on an annualized basis – they were 55 million in 2016, compared with 59.7 million in 2015 – but the company is also spending more on marketing and its flagship phone isn’t making the waves past versions did. The modular G5 wasn’t well received and LG will abandon that approach in favor of the smaller-bezeled strategy others are pursuing too ahead of an anticipated launch of a similar phone from Apple in the fall. LG’s troubles just reinforce both the overall challenges of doing business in a maturing smartphone market and trying to compete using Android against many others using the same operating system.
Why The LG G6 Won’t Have Snapdragon 835 – Forbes (Jan 24, 2017)
This is sourced reporting from a Forbes contributor who (as far as I am aware) doesn’t have a long track record in scooping news like this, so take it with a pinch of salt. But on the face of it, this makes sense – Qualcomm’s 835 chip is brand new, and Samsung would logically need bucketloads of them for its next Galaxy S phones, potentially gobbling up all the supply available and squeezing other OEMs out in the short term. Apple is famous for securing long-term access to the components it needs and squeezing others out in this way, and given the timing and Samsung’s scale in smartphones, it makes sense that it would be able to secure all the available supply of 835 chips on a short-term basis too. That’s going to be tough for other OEMs launching handsets in the first half of 2016 – even though the article downplays the jump from the 821 to the 835, there are some significant additions in the new chip which will create better performance in areas like battery life, VR/AR, and so on.
First Android Wear 2.0 devices revealed: Google and LG’s Watch Sport and Watch Style – VentureBeat (Jan 17, 2017)
Evan Blass is the Mark Gurman of the Android world – when he reports on a leak, it’s usually pretty reliable and often ends up being very accurate indeed. The watches described in this leak are in keeping with what we’ve already heard from Google itself and other sources, so that lends additional credibility. The context here is that Android Wear has never really taken off – as with VR, the biggest success among the Android vendors hs been Samsung’s, which hasn’t been based on Android at all, and Google needs to ensure that other Android OEMs without their own ecosystems can compete too. So far, that hasn’t worked, and some Android OEMs are giving up on Android Wear for now. However, Google clearly hasn’t given up, and appears to have convinced LG to join it in launching some new watches to showcase Android Wear 2.0. I’m skeptical that this will make any difference – what’s become clear since the Apple Watch launched is that we don’t yet have a great model for smartwatches other than as fitness and health tracking devices, and Android Wear doesn’t seem to have provided very appealing options in that category.
I’ve been skeptical of the modular approach to smartphones taken by both LG and Motorola from the start – a smartphone that becomes what you want in different scenarios sounds great, until you realize it will cost lots more to get all the add-ons/mods. In practice, it’s a gimmick few will go for, and it seems LG now recognizes that its experiment didn’t pan out, and will go back to a more traditional approach. Kudos for trying something new, but being an Android OEM remains really tough.
LG’s press conference at CES was the usual mishmash of many different things, but if there were two themes, they were robots and voice, with Alexa providing the guts of the voice capability. It also talked up its emergent AI capabilities, highlighting the fact that OEMs are making their own investments here rather than relying on AI from their platform vendors. Lots of this stuff feels more concept than mainstream at this point, but it’s further validation for what’s rapidly becoming the dominance of voice platforms by Amazon’s Alexa.
It looks like LG has pre-announced lots of their CES smartphone announcements, focused on mid-tier phones. Given how everyone but Apple and Samsung (and more recently the Google Pixel) is struggling in the premium market, it makes sense for LG to focus here, though competition from China is intensifying in this segment. Tough times for Android phone makers.