SciTechTalk: Are smartphone makers going for style over substance?

By JIM ALGAR, United Press International
Credit: Motorola
Credit: Motorola

Motorola unveiled its first flagship smartphone since being acquired by Google, and facing fierce competition from Samsung and Apple, it appears it's decided to market its Moto X on looks, not brains.

Hoping to get some traction in a market dominated by Samsung's Galaxy S4 and Apple's iPhone 5, Motorola has decided offering buyers of the Moto X customization options is the way to generate some buzz and some sales.


Customers can make their Moto X one of a kind, choosing from among different colors for the front and back, or custom wallpaper, accents and even engraving.

Not every Moto X customer will have the option, it seems -- although the Motorola smartphone is coming to every major carrier in the United States, AT&T will have an exclusive on the color options, at least for now.

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Customers at other carriers will have to choose between a black Moto X or a white one -- just the same as the Galaxy and Apple phones, also available in limited color choices.


It's that "just the same" factor Motorola is hoping to overcome with its customization options.

Color aside, the Moto X specs -- 4.7-inch display, dual-core 1.7Ghz processor, 2 gigabytes of RAM, 16 or 32 gigabytes of storage, front-facing and rear-facing camera -- put it on a fairly level playing field with its competitors.

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But that raises a question: Do specs mean that much anymore to the average smartphone buyer?

Samsung apparently thinks so. Last week it found itself having to issue denials to accusations a chip in its Galaxy S4 smartphone has been modified to artificially inflate scores in benchmark tests commonly used by hardware reviewers.

In those tests, the Galaxy returned impressive chip speeds, speeds not seen when running apps users are likely to run in the real world.

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Samsung, in response, said the chip's clock speeds vary to optimize graphics performance for different applications but denied those speed changes were aimed specifically at benchmark programs.

But while tech sites were rife with accusations and finger pointing, the world at large -- or at least the average consumer -- seemed fairly unconcerned.

Still, whether it's Samsung claiming performance muscle or Motorola offering custom color choices, it's evident smartphone manufacturers are finding themselves having to push harder to keep sales of their high-end flagship smartphones up while having to consider such sales levels may be unsustainable.


While a number of factors are involved in that dilemma, one is undeniable -- simple market saturation.

The smartphone market in the developed world -- where manufacturers can charge the highest prices and see the highest profits -- is reaching saturation point.

Wealthy consumers in developed markets already own smartphones, so manufacturers are having to look at lower-price brackets in developing markets.

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Apple, with the iPhone and its top-of-the-line prices, cannot compete in those markets, leading to rumors of an upcoming low-cost version of the iPhone, rumors that sound more likely with each passing day.

Samsung, with a broader product line, is better positioned.

Still, it's high-end flagship smartphones that get all the buzz and attention -- and for now all the most profitable sales figures -- so don't expect manufacturers to stop doing whatever is necessary to get consumers interested in their products.

Want your new Moto X in red, with custom wallpaper and engraving that reads "No. 1 Dr. Who Fan"?

You got it.

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