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Like many technology lovers, I eagerly look forward to the next press conference or handset launch and seeing what manufacturers do to innovate in each version of their flagship. This is why I’m really disappointed at the moment: yesterday morning’s announcement of the Xperia Z4 left me feeling flatter than a pancake.

Before I get into the innovation in Android, let me first explain my definition of innovation; simply put, this is when a company thinks outside the box and aims to revolutionise a handset line. Innovation is usually hardware related but, in some cases, it can be software related.

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Let’s back up a little. A few years ago, Android manufacturers were setting benchmarks in design and specifications as the platform evolved to lead the smartphone industry. The T-Mobile G1 was a truly innovative design that looked to replicate the success of the physical BlackBerry keyboard on the Android platform, while the HTC Desire arguably set the standard by which candy bar Android devices were ranked against over the following years.

During this period, Android was still growing and aiming to knock Apple off the top of the smartphone charts but as the platform evolved and became the market leader around the world, manufacturers stopped needing to innovate as much in the hardware.

Fast forward a few years and this problem is still apparent; Android is so far ahead of the competition that Android manufacturers no longer feel the need to innovate as much. As Samsung learned at its cost last year, just running Android does not guarantee success anymore, especially as Asian manufacturers such as OnePlus, Xiaomi, Huawei and Gionee are all making inroads into the market share of the current leaders.

So where do we stand today?

Samsung Galaxy S6 and the Galaxy S6 Edge

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Let’s start with Samsung, easily the biggest giant in the Android world. Typically Samsung is content to stick to very reiterative designs while stacking new software features into an already overflowing TouchWiz UI. That all changed this year. Samsung has innovated heavily with the completely revamped Galaxy S6 and Galaxy S6 Edge, which are major departures from Samsung devices of old and are arguably light years ahead of anything else on the market.

The Galaxy S6 and S6 Edge are major departures from Samsung devices of old and are arguably light years ahead of anything else on the market.

Samsung devices have usually sold in the tens of millions even with the same old ‘boring’ design, so with a completely changed and vastly superior design, it’s no surprise that the Korean manufacturer is aiming for 70 million plus global sales.

Of course, the Galaxy S6 and S6 Edge aren’t perfect, making sacrifices such as the removal of microSD and having a non-removable battery. TouchWiz has been slimmed down considerably, but it may still be a bit too heavy for stock Android lovers and those that simply don’t like Samsung’s UI design. All that said, the Galaxy S6 and S6 Edge are still very innovative products, at least by the definition I set above.

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HTC, Sony, Huawei and LG

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Now let’s look at the rest of the flagship handsets that have been announced this year: HTC have the One M9, Sony just announced the Xperia Z4, Huawei introduced the Huawei P8 last week, and LG are expected to unveil the LG G4 in a week’s time.

Let’s kick things off with the One M9. I’ve already written a lot about my thoughts on HTC’s latest flagship, but I’ll summarise: HTC have stuck with the same design as last year and updated a few bits before releasing it to the market as an entirely new flagship handset. Except it’s not, it’s just a small revamp of the previous year’s flagship.

Just like the One M9, the Xperia Z4 is just a small revamp of last year’s flagship.

Now to Sony and again, I’ve written about Sony’s new flagship but I’ll summarise: Sony have done what most manufacturers seem to be doing and have taken the Xperia Z3, added a new processor and re-released the handset. While HTC have made a few changes to the One M9 to at least improve a few faults with the One M8, Sony have made barely any changes to the Xperia Z3 successor. Just like the One M9, the Xperia Z4 is just a small revamp of last year’s flagship.

Now we move to Huawei and the new P8, which is arguably much more of a flagship upgrade than either the One M9 or the Xperia Z4. The P8 comes with a slimmer body, updated camera, better display, bigger battery, and newer processor and this essentially determines what a flagship handset should be: simply put, much better than the previous flagship.

Last up is LG and I’ve left the G4 until the end because this is based purely on leaks and not on confirmed details. Last year, the LG G3 was arguably the stand out handset of 2014 as it was the first commercially available handset to offer a Quad HD display and for LG, improving one of the best smartphones was always going to be a challenge.

Based on the rumoured specs, it seems that LG is going to take the G3 and make it even better with a tweaked display (albeit with same resolution), bigger battery, new design options and a tweaked camera. With the G4, LG are arguably innovating as the handset already has market-topping specs but this doesn’t apply to HTC, Sony and arguably Huawei. In fact, the LG G4 could even be the answer for Samsung fans disappointed by the company’s move to non-removable battery and non-expandable storage.

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Many Android OEMs are failing to excite

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Looking at the HTC One M9 and the Xperia Z4, they both don’t excite as much as the Galaxy S6 and Huawei P8. Whether it’s the dated screen, the same old design, or the compromise of specifications, there’s something about the two handsets that just fails to excite. Now compare them to the Galaxy S6 and the contrast is stark.

Compared to the Galaxy S5 of last year, the Galaxy S6 has a vastly superior design, screen, processor,and build. Add the massive software improvements and the differences are astonishing. Samsung seems to have built several years of innovation into one device and the Galaxy S6 could easily be one of the best selling handsets on the market for a whole two years, let alone being replaced by the Note 5 later this year and presumably by the Galaxy S7 next year.

Could the One M9 or the Xperia Z4 sell for two years? That seems highly unlikely; the Xperia Z4 will probably be pulled from the market by the end of the year, as will the One M9, and the only way that both manufacturers will be able to complete is through price. Except this poses another problem: Samsung has the finances to compete against everyone on price and if HTC or Sony wanted to compete on price, Samsung could probably undercut them.

Even if Samsung didn’t lower the Galaxy S6 price – and why would they when the handsets are worth every penny Samsung is charging – a price drop on the One M9 and Z4 might mean more sales, but it would almost certainly mean less profit. Both HTC and Sony need profit and sales to cement their future and reducing the price of their flagship would probably have a negative effect on consumer faith in their brands.

Is innovation dead in Android?

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So is innovation dead in Android? It depends on the manufacturer. Samsung and Huawei have innovated compared to their previous flagship devices, and LG has done so with the G Flex series and is set to innovate to some degree with the G4, but HTC and Sony have just failed. Failed to think outside the box, failed to innovate and failed to produce little more than rehashes of last year’s flagship.

For Sony and HTC, their current designs were both innovative when first released; Sony was the first manufacturer to go after waterproofing and HTC were the first to release metal-clad handsets. The Xperia Z1 and Z3 and the One M7 and One M8 all set benchmarks in what a smartphone should look like and do but over the past twelve months, the companies seem to have lost their way.

Arguably both HTC and Sony need to just release one handset a year. One handset that comprises of the absolute best that the company has to offer.

Is it recoverable? For Sony the future looks bleak unless the Xperia Z4 is a stop-gap until the metal-clad “real” Xperia Z4 is announced at IFA (although it’d probably be called the Xperia Z5). For HTC, there comes the need to innovate heavily; since the One M9, they’ve introduced the One E9 Plus and One M9 Plus which both use Quad HD but where was this in the flagship? Where’s the fingerprint sensor from the One M9 Plus in the flagship One M9?

Arguably both HTC and Sony need to just release one handset a year. One handset that comprises of the absolute best that the company has to offer. Unfortunately, some manufacturers seem completely against the belief that “less is more” to their peril, especially when this strategy has worked so well for the Apple iPhone. HTC and Sony used to be at the forefront of the smartphone industry but for now at least, they seem to be struggling to keep up with the best that Samsung, Huawei and others have to offer.

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