Variants mean more choices
IT WAS just in April that Samsung began selling its flagship Galaxy S4 smartphone in Singapore.
But, wait, didn't a water-resistant version of the phone, called the S4 Active, as well as a smaller variant, the S4 mini, hit stores earlier this month?
And isn't there a camera-smartphone hybrid, called the S4 zoom, due here in the third quarter of this year?
Confused? Well, you'd better get used to it, because other phone-makers are coming up with variants of their flagships, too.
HTC unveiled a smaller version of its April flagship release, the HTC One, about a week ago. It's uncertain when the One mini will be sold here, but it's slated to be available globally from September.
Nokia also began retailing the Lumia 925 a week ago, a slimmer and lighter version of the Lumia 920 phone from last December. In the United States, another version called the Lumia 928, with a tweaked design and a more-plastic build than the aluminium-lined 925, was released in May.
In this year's third quarter, Sony's Xperia Z Ultra, an even-larger version of March's Xperia Z, will hit Singapore stores. This comes after the release of April's less-premium version of the flagship, called the Xperia ZL.
There's also this month's LG Optimus G Pro, a phablet (sort of) take on February's Optimus G.
Hardware-wise, the Lumia 925 is fairly similar to the Lumia 920, with some improvements and a tweaked design.
Others, such as the S4 zoom and mini, differ in their technical specifications. The S4 zoom has a camera lens popping out of the phone's back, while its front looks like the original S4.
Alternative versions of flagship phones aren't new. In February, we saw the mini version of last year's Samsung's Galaxy S III. Firms have also released phones with similar designs or updated versions of their flagships.
But what's different now is that there are more spins on flagships, especially from Samsung. And I'm discounting alternative phone models due to technical requirements for different networks.
For some companies, like Nokia, having different versions of their flagships could help them keep mindshare among consumers, said Gartner principal research analyst Lillian Tay.
"(Phone-makers) used to come up with models once a year or once every two years. Now, they come out with something new every six months," she said.
This also stems from changing consumer expectations.
"People want new things faster, (and this has been) brought about by factors such as the Internet and rising disposable income," she said, adding that young people like to change their phones.
Companies are releasing flagship derivatives to appeal to more consumers.
Said Ms Kiranjeet Kaur, senior market analyst for client devices at IDC Asia-Pacific: "Vendors will try to leverage on the hype of the flagship, so they have variants to capture a wider customer base. Not everyone wants, or can afford, to have a top-of-the-line smartphone. Some may want something smaller."
Ms Tay said the variant trend arose from stiff competition, and is expected to continue as the phone war hots up.
Some variants could be released to guard against what competitors have come up with, she said. I'm thinking Samsung's S4 Active versus Sony's similarly-water-resistant Xperia Z.
But Ms Kaur said one downside to having variations of a flagship is that managing so many different models can be a logistics nightmare for a company. The variants could also cannibalise a phone-maker's existing products, she added.
Phone Arena reported last month that analysts were concerned over the dilution of Samsung's S4 branding because of its many models.
And won't having many versions of a flagship be confusing to customers? In a way, yes, but Ms Tay said the variants benefit consumers as they like having more choices. Consumers are also more savvy now and "handset vendors are capitalising on the savviness" with different takes on the flagship, she said.
So, if anything, consumers win in the battle for smartphone supremacy, and you can thank consumer impatience for more takes on flagship phones.