It didn’t take long for the sequence of events to unfold. In fact, wheels were in motion even as the previous year drew to a close, with smartphone brands attempting to draw an advantage from smart timing. Nevertheless, the pace of developments has been rapid. A paradox that usually takes a quarter to be able to successfully illustrate unfolding dynamics of the marketplace with numbers has been compressed in a couple of weeks. That’s where we are with smartphones in India in 2024.

OnePlus’ camera partnership with Hasselblad will be important for their next flagships; (right) Qualcomm’s latest chips for Android phones will focus on faster performance and AI compute. (HT Photo)

New launches, renewed competition across price points, powerful chips with an evolving artificial intelligence (AI) layer as well as business appointments ahead of a crucial year, a collective and relentless theme. There hasn’t been any lull before an inevitable storm. We can only wait for the passage of time before the quarterly numbers come through, but phone makers aren’t taking any time to get up to speed.

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Barely a few days in this year, Vivo launched its flagship phone, the Vivo X100 Pro, which has set new goalposts for camera performance. Upcoming flagship phones will have a tough time matching, and bettering, the X100 Pro’s camera and AI image processing performance. The smartphone maker has drawn maximum advantage from its partnership with photography giants Zeiss, for optimising colours, image processing specific photo modes. That’ll be a continuous theme through the year, as OnePlus with Hasselblad and Xiaomi with Leica, will improve computational photography.

Xiaomi’s pursuit for premium phones is writing another chapter, with the Redmi Note 13 series that too went on sale this month, with prices bookended between 16,999 and 33,999. The phones last year were more expensive than the generation that went before, and the trajectory continues this year – success with sales despite that upward movement on the price tag, reason for confidence. Between In H1 2023, 1 million Redmi Note 12 phones were shipped globally.

“Over the next few years at Xiaomi India, our focus is to be the aspirational Indians’ most preferred and pioneering smartphone x AIoT brand,” says Xiaomi India president Muralikrishnan B. Generational forward steps with processors, brighter displays and fast charging accompanied by powerful cameras – 108-megapixel in the Redmi Note 13 and 200-megapixel in Redmi Note 13 Pro and Redmi Note 13 Pro+.

These efforts to build a relatively more loyal base of users, may help smartphone brands in the medium term. Faisal Kawoosa, Chief Analyst and founder of Techarc, a research firm, believes more of the younger buyers, often search for relatability. Rather than owning any smartphone, the preference towards owning a smartphone from a particular brand is on the rise among this generation,” he says.

Phone makers cannot ignore this demographic. Techarc’s ‘India GenZ Smartphone Brands 2023’ report suggests that the GenZ demographic, which roughly covers the age group between 18 and 25 years, will contribute to as much as 44% of total smartphone sales in 2024.

In late December, smartphone maker Vivo’s subsidiary IQOO, attempted to pre-empt time. They released the flagship phone, IQOO 12, hoping to draw an early advantage. Not only the first to put the hat in a ring of flagship phones, but that attempt built on a rock-solid foundation. The IQOO 12 being the first phone with Qualcomm’s latest top-of-the-line chip, the Snapdragon 8 Gen 3 mobile platform.

In our experience, the IQOO 12 delivers on performance, photography and even value, as it undercuts competition from Samsung’s Galaxy S23 range, by quite some margin. If that still doesn’t convince you, the BMW Motorsports partnership should get automobile enthusiasts onside.

The Snapdragon 8 Gen 3 chip is expected to power many an Android flagship in the coming months. Two of the most anticipated ones are Samsung’s Galaxy S24 series and the OnePlus 12 as well as OnePlus 12R, with expectations some variants will be powered by this processor. OnePlus completed 10 years in India in December and has continued its growth trajectory.

In Q3 2023, numbers from the International Data Corporation’s Worldwide Quarterly Mobile Phone Tracker suggest OnePlus logged a 50% growth in shipments year-on-year, which translated into a 6.2% market share at the end of the quarter. A subplot within that growth is 35% of this share is driven by sales of the Nord CE 3 Lite smartphone. This phone is priced 19,999 onwards and underlines the importance of more affordable price points for the phone maker.

Samsung could go a step further with specific customisations for its phones, continuing a trend we also saw last year, with the specific changes Qualcomm made for Snapdragon 8 Gen 2 Mobile Platform for Galaxy. This chip powered the Galaxy Z Fold 5 and Galaxy Z Flip 5.

“Qualcomm showcased one generative AI feature during MWC’23 through their ‘Stable Diffusion’ technology this year. Users to get those AI capabilities with Snapdragon 8 Gen 3 powered phones. Samsung Galaxy S24 series is all set for an unveil, and will go on sale in the next few weeks. With Galaxy AI, it is all set to be one of the biggest launches of 2024,” points out Abhilash Kumar, Industry Analyst for Wireless Smartphone Strategies, at TechInsights, a research firm.

This innovation, even before the foldable phones again take centerstage, later this year.

Will AI define the smartphone class of 2024?

AI will be a theme for the year, for smartphones too. Samsung, late last year, teased the AI Live Translate Call which will translate a phone call on the fly, on device. It is expected to be part of the Galaxy S24 phones from the outset, and hardware capabilities permitting, be rolled out as updates from previous generation phones. “Galaxy AI is our most comprehensive intelligence offering to date, and it will change how we think about our phones forever,” said Wonjoon Choi, Executive Vice-Preside and Head of R&D for Mobile Experience Business at Samsung.

In January at CES 2024, the Korean tech giant talked about what they call “AI for all”, which includes Spatial AI for smartphones and ecosystem devices, home-to-car and car-to-home using SmartThings, and AI experiences for homes. The partnership with Microsoft for the company’s Galaxy smartphone range as well as computing devices, and with automakers including Hyundai and Kia, put phones and connected devices at the centre of a smart home and smart car.

“With the emergence of artificial intelligence, smarter, better experiences will redefine how we live. Samsung’s broad portfolio of powerful devices, along with the pursuit of open collaboration, will help bring AI and hyper-connectivity to all,” Jong-Hee (JH) Han, vice chairman, CEO and head of Samsung’s Device Experience (DX) Division, said.

Apple’s iOS 17.2.1 update from late last year has enabled a Live Voicemail functionality – it unlocks voicemail on an iPhone on device, which is invoked if you do not receive an incoming call, and shows you a live AI generated transcription of a message a caller may be saving on the voicemail at the time. The voice to text functionality also negates the need for having to listen to a voice message.

These are just two examples, perhaps the tip of an iceberg that’ll inevitably reveal itself more and more with every high-profile phone launch over the next few months. But it’ll remain a niche space, for now. “The share of GenAI smartphones in the overall smartphone market will be in single digits through next year. But those numbers will not accurately reflect the amount of excitement and marketing hyperbole we are expecting to see,” says Tarun Pathak, Research Director for Counterpoint Research.

Their latest Smartphone 360 Service report expects ‘GenAI’ phones to collect about 8% of the total smartphone market, up from 4% in 2023, and progress towards a share of 40% by the year 2027.

“Other processors like Google Tensor and MediaTek Dimensity have also worked on the same and have launched SoCs with AI capabilities like MediaTek Dimensity 9300, Google Tensor G3, etc. Hence, we will see the penetration of GenAI phones to grow significantly in 2024 from a smaller base in 2023,” said Neil Mawston, Executive Director got Global Devices Group, at TechInsights.

Motorola, a legacy brand in the smartphone space, continues to struggle in an attempt to garner a respectable market share in India. Not for the lack of new launches, since 2023 saw the Moto Razr 40 go on sale too. The phone maker has now confirmed the appointment of T.M Narasimhan as Managing Director for Mobile Business Group for India, with an eye on some success.

More than ever, there’s a need for AI to step up and define utility within smartphones. That’s a space, which AI companions such as the Humane AI Pin and the Rabbit R1, are otherwise threatening to corner. Quickly.

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