There has always been something about an underdog to me. The scrappy contender who challenges the leaders of the market. This tendency has shaped the stores that I shop at, the sports teams that I root for, and the types of tech that I buy. When it comes to smartphones, I have always been enamored with companies that aren’t the de facto buying decision of most people.
This is why I was a huge supporter of Windows Phone when it was first coming into the market. It is also the same reason why I was a fierce HTC fan for years and why over the past few years I have been a fan of LG phones. As the clock eventually struck midnight on the Cinderella clocks of HTC and Windows Phone, it has now become time for LG phones to suffer the same fate. This week, LG has made it official that the company has decided to leave the mobile phone business. It is always a dark day in mobile tech when a player like LG leaves the market, not only for the sake of competition but also in regards to innovation across the board. Let’s take some time to look back at what LG did and didn’t do with its smartphones and what the smartphone landscape will look like without them in it.
A True Innovator
Quite often when discussing introducing new technology and success, it is usually the one that iterates and markets the idea that is remembered. This is what the story of LG truly amounts to. A company with bold ideas and even bolder ambitions to continuously bring them into the market. LG was never afraid to try new ideas, but its failure was this constant push for the next innovation while its rivals were improving upon its original ideas.
In his video looking back at the stumbles of LG, MKBHD recalled some of the innovations that LG has contributed to the smartphone landscape and the list is staggering. The LG Prada had the first capacitive touch screen, the LG G3 introduced higher resolution smartphone displays, and the LG G5 was the first phone to implement an ultrawide camera. All of these features have become standard features on all smartphones and we can thank LG for that.
And while it is easy to remember those innovations, we all too often forget the feature set that LG continued to pioneer that will get overlooked. LG for years now has become the go-to recommendation for users that are looking for the highest quality audio listening experience on mobile with its HiFi DAC (digital audio converter) and 3D Sound Engine. The company paid attention to audio quality at a time when it was becoming a footnote in many manufacturer spec sheets.
LG also pioneered the Pro Camera experience on smartphones that companies like Samsung and OnePlus use today. To this day, the LG Pro mode is probably one of the most feature-rich camera setups for photography enthusiasts that is available today. In the realm of cameras, LG also ushered in artificial intelligence modes to its automatic shooting mode that other companies have implemented as well.
Lastly, recent LG phones had a focus on productivity that we are not seeing from most mainstream players in the smartphone space. This past year, all of LG’s flagship phones (V60, Velvet, and Wing) had some level of dual-display functionality for multitasking and stylus support to be a true competitor to Samsung’s Galaxy Note line. LG in recent years has leaned into the content creation community with the inclusion of high-fidelity microphones and other creative tools. Sadly, those quietly innovative features can only get you so far when the messaging around the products was so poor.
The Sins of Bad Marketing and Messaging
A quick personal story to preface the way that LG did or did not market its phones. In 2016, I worked as a Field Sales Manager here in Detroit, Michigan for Samsung’s mobile division. I was working there during the summer right around the time of the launch of the notorious Galaxy Note 7. During my store visits to various carrier stores, I would run into my counterpart from LG. During this time, the LG G5 was out but every time he was in stores he would tell me that all he heard about were customer issues with the LG G4.
The G4, of course, had the infamous LG boot looping issue that resulted in a class-action lawsuit against LG. Little did I know that Samsung would come under fire shortly after this for exploding batteries in the Galaxy Note 7. I had left the Samsung team by then but saw the blowback that many of my former colleagues experienced. Yet it seems now in hindsight that many people forget that this even happened. Meanwhile, every LG since the G4 has come under some sort of lazy commentary about boot loops and inferior quality control. The reason for this? Samsung got ahead of the messaging and LG didn’t.
Samsung was very public about its failings with the Note 7 and committed to a more thorough manufacturing process with all of its phones that followed. And while I am sure that LG was thorough as well in its processes, the key difference is that Samsung made sure that we knew about it. Samsung dedicated time in keynotes to address the issues and to reassure people that there was nothing to fear with buying a new Galaxy flagship. LG instead created the Second Year Promise, an initiative to extend the standard one-year warranty to a two-year warranty as a showing of its faith in the quality of its smartphones. And while this was a great idea, it never got in front of everyone to assure them that all was well in the way that Samsung did.
In the United States and other markets, creating a great device is not enough. A company has to market that device to catch the eyeballs of consumers to prove that it is worth considering. In 2019, Samsung spent $1.98B on advertising in the United States. By comparison, LG spent $100M in the United States. This is an absurd margin, a strategy from Samsung that has absolutely been effective. Samsung has made sure to get its devices in front of as many eyeballs as possible. It has spent money to get prominent placement in US carrier stores and national retail chains. LG simply did not make the same effort.
The result of this avalanche of marketing and exposure resulted in many perceiving Samsung as the superior brand and LG as the cheap replica. Despite LG offering a compelling package of hardware and features that matched up with Samsung relatively well, the perception that was cultivated was that Samsung was by far the superior phone maker. LG’s instinct to rival this was to continue to differentiate. To continue to show why LG was better than Samsung. They did this by adding more camera lenses before Samsung did, by going all-in on dual-display technology, and by doubling down on content creator tools. The issue remained that they were not very good at letting people know about this, where Samsung made sure all of its new features were well known by the masses.
A prime example of this is the LG G8. This phone implemented what LG called the Z Camera. This was a secondary camera on the front of the phone that helped create a secure face unlock method in addition to having the rear-mounted fingerprint sensor for biometric security. This was the only phone at the time that offered two secure methods of unlocking your phone, yet LG decided to focus on something else. The company leaned into air gestures that allowed a twisting motion that controlled volume and opened apps. A gimmick to say the least and because it was called out for being a gimmick by reviewers LG abandoned the Z Camera entirely taking away secure face unlock from future LG phones. All of this because the company failed to articulate this sort of differentiating feature.
LG’s lack of talking to the unique selling features of its phones has been a recurring issue that has led to a lack of continuity. When the G5’s modular accessories were panned and not pushed as strong as the Motorola Mods for the Moto Z, LG abandoned it alienating the small subset of people that bought into the vision of the LG Friends platform. These types of abrupt pivots defined the agony and ecstasy that came with owning an LG phone. On one hand, you appreciated that they were always trying something new but on the other trying new things also meant abandoning old ideas to die.
The Ripple Effect of LG Exiting Smartphones
If you are reading this and you are using an iPhone or Samsung Galaxy phone, you may be thinking “so what, LG leaving doesn’t impact my phone buying decisions”. And while that may be the case on a surface level, LG leaving allows your favorite phone maker to relax a bit. LG as it has been established is a company that will try new and different things that show the larger players what is possible. So without that company trying to push the boundaries of innovation, these larger players will be allowed to maintain their device status quo because there is no company pushing them to innovate.
With LG exiting the space, the question becomes what company will slide into the role of the next smartphone innovator. And in the United States, it seems that our options are very thin. The companies that are pushing the boundaries of what we think is possible do not operate and sell devices in the United States. Companies like Xiaomi and Oppo have stayed away from the US market for instance. This puts the burden on companies like OnePlus, Motorola, and Google to drive innovation forward. And while these companies have taken some chances (Google’s Project Soli comes to mind), they have not been all-in on trying new things as LG has.
The US smartphone market is widely considered to be a duopoly, a true two-horse race between Samsung and Apple. When looking at smartphone market share in the US as of March 2021, Samsung and Apple account for a combined 84.35% of the market. LG is the third-place player at a very distant 4.4% of the market. But how many phones is that exactly? The current US population is slightly above 330 million people according to recent census data. According to Pew Research, 85% of the American population currently owns a smartphone. So factoring in a 4.4% market share for LG, this means that roughly 12 million Americans own an LG phone of some sort currently. The question becomes, what will be the next phone for these people?
Where LG sold in numbers was in the lower end budget segment with its K and Stylo line of phones. These customers it would appear would go to either a Samsung A series or to the fourth place company in the US: Motorola. Motorola currently holds a 3.37% market share in the US and is in a position to sell Moto G’s and Moto E’s to these current LG customers. On the flagship side, Motorola has started to release higher-end options like the Edge and Edge+ of the past year that could entice owners of LG phones.
Another company that could vie for the eyes and dollars of LG phone users in the next year or two, is OnePlus. The company currently has a 0.6% market share in the US but has been positioning itself as a worthy alternative to Samsung and iPhone. Its partnership with T-Mobile has led to greater brand awareness as a player in the United States market. LG leaving the market opens a door for OnePlus to partner with Verizon and AT&T to market its devices in its carrier stores, finally making OnePlus a household name in the United States.
The result of LG leaving the market could also potentially mean that people will just flock to a Galaxy phone or iPhone and the skewed market share will only become more skewed. But their exit does present an opportunity for Google, OnePlus, and Motorola to rise to prominence and become the third player in the smartphone race here in the US. And through these efforts, we can hope that they will try to continue to legacy of innovation that LG leaves behind.
In the end, what is LG’s legacy in the annals of smartphone history? Will they be remembered as an innovator that was always pushing the limits of what we think as possible through technology or are they a company that died from introducing one gimmick too many? In the many retrospective posts that have flooded the internet, many have leaned into LG being a smartphone brand built on gimmicks, as fun as they may have been. In my eyes, LG leaves a legacy of excellent hardware and underappreciated software that will, unfortunately, be forgotten.
Most will choose to remember LG for its high fidelity audio solutions on various G and V series phones. Or perhaps they will remember the G5’s ultrawide camera and the G3’s high-resolution display. I will remember LG as the company that tried to give you as many hardware features as it could and a software experience that attempted to draw the balance between options and usability.
Where in recent years Samsung prioritized its ecosystem of apps and services and created some complexity, LG took away many of its own apps and focused on hardware modifications like its 3D Sound Engine and stylus pen support. Small additions like these that are often unheralded in reviews created a versatile experience that wasn’t found on a Pixel or iPhone but still didn’t feel as bloated as some iterations of Samsung’s software.
LG created phones for people that are looking for a true pocket computer experience. People who craved the options of a manual camera mode and advanced audio features. In many ways, they were the anti-Apple in the sense of going beyond the mantra of “it just works”. LG made phones that encouraged users to push the limits of their phones as opposed to a more minimalist approach from Apple.
On a personal note, LG made phones that I always appreciated as someone that liked to take videos at live music venues (when we were still allowed to do that sort of thing) and to listen to high-quality audio with wired headphones. I always appreciated that they always added something new to differentiate itself from Samsung and other Android manufacturers. I can’t help but think of HTC when thinking about LG. I was sad to see HTC exit the US market, but it hurts more to see LG leaving it. We lost an innovator and a driving force in the market. It is a shame that my V60 will be the last LG phone I will ever own, I can only hope that other manufacturers will pick up the pieces and continue LG’s legacy of innovation in the future.