One of the standout features of the annual IFA technology trade expo in Berlin, Germany, is how much effort brands make to stand out. The result is that many of the big launches happen two or even three days before the main event, to avoid getting lost in the noise.
As a result, the likes of Huawei, Sony, Acer and Lenovo had all made their big announcements well before the crowds began arriving on Friday morning.
Huawei in particular stood out, with its most aggressive assault yet on the high end of the smartphone market. Until recently, it was best known for its network infrastructure, from base stations to 3G and 4G wireless Internet devices. As Glory Cheung, chief marketing officer of Huawei’s Consumer Business Group, put it, “We have base stations as far north as the Arctic Circle and as high as the Himalayas. The smartphone is the human extension of what we do.”
Huawei unveiled its new Mate S, a 5.5-inch device that packs in every gram of the company’s innovation in an effort to demonstrate that it is no copycat manufacturer. There were numerous cut-and-paste phone and TV makers at IFA, with one very average brand plastering its stand with the overused and meaningless slogan “Game changer”.
For Huawei, if the game is about positioning it alongside the market leaders like Apple and Samsung rather than the entry-level copycats, the Mate S does indeed change its own game.
It introduces several new and enhanced features around touch and control of the device, starting with what may be the best fingerprint recognition technology on a phone today. Dubbed Fingerprint 2.0, it allows the fingerprint pad on the back of the phone to be used not only for quick and accurate biometric identification – and therefore secure mobile payments – but also as an additional control and navigation mechanism. This means that it becomes a trackpad on which the user can swipe down or across to activate various functions.
More impressive but still a feature in search of a function is a technology called “force touch”, which makes the screen pressure sensitive – to the extent that it can be used as a scale to weigh small items.
And then there is Knuckle Control 2.0, which appears to combine the knock code of LG phones with the drawing function of Samsung Note devices, and then takes it to a new practical level. With a knuckle, the user can draw a crop line around any shape in a photo – whether a shoe or a ship – and crop out only that shape, rather than be confined to the usual geometric shapes. The knuckle can also be used to activate shortcuts by drawing, for example, a C for Camera or W for Weather.
Huawei’s slogan for the launch, “Touch. Made powerful.”, was one of a handful that did not come across as mere hype.
Another brand that has tried to keep pace with the smartphone leaders through its own innovation, Sony, also got in ahead of IFA to launch its new Xperia range in Berlin. Its direct competitor to the Mate S, the Xperia Z5 Premium, is a world first. It is the first handset to feature 4K display and recording – linking the phone to the current high-end in TV display.
Translated into numbers, that means 3840×2160 resolution. Translated into English, it means a dazzlingly sharp display that is almost outrageous in its visual quality.
The handset features a 5.5-inch screen and 3400 mAh battery, addressing Sony’s consumer research finding that battery life is currently the number one concern of phone buyers. Sony also launched a standard Z5 with 5.2-inch display and a Z5 Compact, with a 4.6-inch screen that is likely to retain the enthusiasm that the similarly sized Z3 Compact generated in the market.
But Sony and Huawei showed off the latest iterations of their wearable technology, joining Samsung, Garmin, Fitbit, Runtastic and Withings, among many others, in the race for attention.
Once again, Huawei surprised, taking a leaf out of Apple’s marketing book by calling its new device simply the Huawei Watch. But it was also no cut-and-paste job: the watch has an elegant, round face that gives it the appearance of a regular fashion watch rather than a geek tool.
Under the surface, though, it pushes the Android Wear standard for wearables to the limits. It’s not only a full activity tracker – with 6-axis motion sensor – and heart-rate monitor, but is also compatible with both Android and iOS devices. That’s a first for a major smartphone manufacturer.
While the big names compete for share in such intensively competitive segments, new niches are also emerging within these segments. For example, health-monitoring
One of the most intriguing is activity tracking for dogs and cats. A company called Tractive used IFA to showcase its GPS pet tracking device. While the initial focus was on locating lost animals, it raises fascinating possibilities, like solving the mystery of where cats go wandering in the course of a day. Some of the Tractive devices also measure body temperature, warning the owner when the pet needs water, shade or rest.
It’s a great example of technology getting in touch with more than just human needs.