Back in the beginning of the year, we said LG had an anonymous 2018. Sure, the company launched a good all-round flagship in the G7 ThinQ and a pioneering device in the triple camera-toting V40 ThinQ, but neither device could halt what has become a predictable pattern of disappointing financial results.
But if we thought the South Korean manufacturer had an anonymous 2018, nothing really prepared us for the year that was 2019. The company delivered another solid all-round flagship in the G8 ThinQ, and its first 5G phone in the LG V50 ThinQ. Unfortunately, neither device managed to make enough of a dent to catch leading Android OEMs like Samsung, Apple, and Huawei.
LG also released the LG G8X ThinQ at IFA 2019, which was essentially the definitive version of the G8. Albeit without a front-facing Time-of-Flight camera and packing a second screen case and bigger battery.
Can the tech giant’s smartphone division finally turn around its fortunes in 2020?
LG in 2019: The bucket brigade gets bigger buckets
LG kicked off the first quarter of 2019 with disappointing results, offering a year-on-year sales drop of almost 30%. The firm cited a sluggish smartphone market and the expansion of Chinese brands as the reasoning behind the poor performance, though LG has been employing near-identical damage control soundbites for years now.
Things didn’t improve in a big way throughout the rest of the year, as LG’s mobile division reported similarly bleak sales figures in each quarter. It cited everything from reduced global smartphone demand to marketing expenses and more. The key takeaway, however, was that it was seeing fewer people buy its smartphones than perhaps ever before.
There is a bright spot though, and that’s the division’s commitment to cutting costs and reorganizing in a bid to improve matters. Among these measures include the shuttering of a South Korean production plant in favor of shifting production to Vietnam. And these solutions have resulted in narrowing losses in a couple of quarters, perhaps serving as proof that the “turnaround expert” it hired in 2018 is managing to right the ship.
Cost-cutting and streamlining isn't the answer to all LG's woes.
Despite these shrinking losses, it’s clear that sales can only drop so much until no amount of cost-cutting and business streamlining can help. In other words, for LG to remain a presence in the smartphone market it needs a hit phone, and it needs it soon.
It’s really akin to a bucket brigade on a sinking ship gaining bigger buckets. Sure, you can bail out more water at once, but that doesn’t fix the ever-expanding hole in the hull.
What did it offer in 2019?
LG’s G-series flagship didn’t go for a modular design, but it offered a front-facing 3D ToF sensor that stood out for all the wrong reasons. Instead of using it for 3D face unlock, LG decided to implement Hand ID and Air Motion gesture control functionality.
Hand ID tries to unlock your phone by using the blood vessels in your hand to authenticate you. Air Motion is essentially similar to Samsung’s old gesture controls and the Pixel 4’s Motion Sense. But the bad news is that neither feature worked well, according to reviewers Eric Zeman and Jimmy Westenberg in our LG G8 review.
These gimmicky, unreliable features weren’t likely the only reason why LG’s early 2019 flagship failed to set the world alight. But it certainly didn’t help matters.
The firm also delivered the LG V50 ThinQ alongside the G8 ThinQ, marking the firm’s first foray into 5G. And the V50 delivered a second screen case, giving you a taste of foldable phones without a foldable display. LG then followed up at IFA 2019 with the LG G8X ThinQ, essentially dropping the front-facing 3D ToF camera and offering a bigger battery and a second screen case.
You have to give props to LG for wanting to try something different in the first place, as it might only take one killer feature to make a hit phone. But it feels like even though the company is offering phones with stacked spec sheets each year, its flagship phones are simply tainted by virtue of having the LG logo on them. It certainly doesn’t help that camera quality — which has become one of the most important selling factors today — has generally lagged behind the competition for years now.
LG made a few encouraging steps elsewhere though, with perhaps its most notable move being the introduction of the W series of cheap smartphones. Featuring relatively capable budget chipsets, triple or dual cameras, and big batteries, the W series also offered respectable price tags. In fact, the firm reportedly noted that sales were better than expected in India, and it apparently hopes to sell a million units by the end of the year.
What will it offer in 2020?
If Huawei doesn’t secure Google services next year, LG will only have itself to blame if it doesn’t see an uptick in sales. LG has long been leaning on the US market for success, but the EMEA markets are ripe for an alternative to Huawei if the US trade ban continues. Operators in these markets will only be too keen to make up for the shortfall by teaming up with a dependable brand.
In fact, it’s looking more and more likely that the Huawei/Google situation will stretch into the new year. It’s believed that the Huawei P40 series will offer Huawei services in lieu of Google Play Services (if it’s not simply a rebranded P30 series). We’ve already seen many operators show a reluctance to range the Huawei Mate 30 series owing to its lack of Google support, so the LG V60 ThinQ (tipped to arrive at MWC 2020) could still allow networks to keep their eggs in several baskets.
2020 feels like a do-or-die year for LG's smartphone ambitions.
Away from the LG V60, the firm has previously stated that its G-series devices will be 4G phones from now on. That may change now that Qualcomm is bundling 5G modems as standard with its top-end chipsets (and mid-range for that matter), so it looks like the G-series will either gain 5G hardware or use less capable processors if it appears in 2020.
We’ve also seen a recent trend towards affordable flagships, with the likes of Xiaomi, Realme, and even Samsung offering cheaper high-end phones. The LG G8X was a pretty good deal at $699, so here’s hoping the brand steps things up in 2020.
LG’s best bet for relevance in the smartphone sector might not be at the top end of the market though, as the US market slowly veers towards mid-range phones and global demand skews cheaper. Counterpoint Research’s Q3 2019 report found that three of the top ten smartphones for the quarter were Galaxy A series devices. So 2020 is a good a time as any to offer more W series phones or affordable flagships from the get-go, striking a similar balance between features and price.
Going for the mid-range and below will likely need to be LG’s theme for 2020, with affordable 5G devices a priority for the likes of Nokia, Motorola, Xiaomi, and others as well. We’ve also seen the likes of Samsung outsource production and design of budget phones to China, so this could be another way for LG to deliver cheap phones to take on competitive Chinese brands.
One thing we didn’t see in 2019 was a foldable smartphone, as LG chose to skip this design in favor of phones with a second screen case. Between Samsung’s teething issues with the Galaxy Fold and the long gestation period for the Huawei Mate X, hindsight says LG was wise to wait out a year. The absence of even a prototype device in 2020 will certainly give the impression that LG isn’t at the forefront of technology, especially when it manufactures plastic OLED screens that could be used in foldables in the first place.
It certainly feels like a do-or-die year for LG in 2020. While its business at large is booming, it surely can’t be long until its top execs start looking at smartphones as a lost cause if it endures another torrid year.
Still, narrowing losses mean the mobile division is closer than its been in years to actually making that elusive turnaround.