Samsung, LG have sold you their little black dress. Now they want you to accessorize – CNET

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The Hi-Fi Plus is one of a handful of debut proprietary snap-on accessories for the new G5 — it snaps on in place of the bottom bezel.

Sarah Tew/CNET

It’s no longer just a phone you’re buying. You’re also getting the keys to a walk-in wardrobe of devices.

That was one of the trends that emerged after Samsung and LG released their latest super phones on Sunday, a day before the Mobile World Congress conference kicks off here in Barcelona, Spain. It quickly became clear that while their respective flagship products each received upgrades, that was no longer enough. Instead, there was a lot of talk about the capabilities that extend beyond the phone.

Samsung talked up its Gear 360 virtual reality camera, which joins a spring collection of devices such as the Gear VR headset, Gear S2 watch and TVs that can be linked to its new phones, the Galaxy S7 and S7 Edge. The company is working to mirror the screen of its phone on a Samsung refrigerator screen too.

LG took the concept a step further, offering companion pieces like a camera grip and souped-up audio attachments that can be swapped into the G5 itself. The company also released a 360-degree video camera and a rolling robot, and promised more modular attachments.

Even Sony got into the accessory game, expanding its Xperia line with a “smart” Bluetooth earpiece, as well as conceptual images of a small, GoPro-like camera, projector and personalized assistant that were arguably more exciting than its phone news. The company also unveiled a new family of phones called Xperia X.

Bringing back the excitement

The emphasis on the different capabilities and buzz-worthy accessories speaks to the lack of excitement we feel for the actual phone, and the new ways these companies are working to get you excited again. Call it the next step of the digital-era little black dress. The smartphone is largely fixed, a classic. Now its makers are less focused on software, but rather adding hardware capabilities. Accessorizing, in other words — but instead of a statement clutch or a sharp pair of heels, it’s a virtual reality camera or a drone.

“We’re pushing the frontier to go beyond the phone,” Justin Denison, Samsung senior vice president of strategy and marketing, said in an interview in San Francisco before MWC.

Let’s face it. You probably aren’t feeling the need to upgrade your phone, despite the flashy new wide-angle camera on the LG G5 or return of the waterproof body in the Samsung Galaxy S7. Designs have largely settled on slim, glassy rectangles encased in plastic or metal, and they all seem to do the same things. That’s a problem for the mobile industry, with phone growth slowing to a crawl, according to Gartner.

“Most of these phones look alike now so it’s becoming harder to differentiate,” Lopez Research analyst Maribel Lopez said.

LG put it more bluntly: “We don’t see excitement anymore,” said Juno Cho, president of the mobile business, at the company’s phone unveiling.

Tying it all together

Touting a range of devices that interact well together has long been one of Apple’s strengths. Now Samsung, LG and, to a lesser extent, Sony are taking their turns.

It has been harder for companies making phones using Google’s Android software to do the same since they don’t control all of the pieces. That’s why many of the accessories don’t use Android.

Samsung’s Gear VR headset and Gear 360 virtual reality camera require a Galaxy phone to run. The Gear S2 smartwatch uses its homegrown Tizen software.

LG’s modules are largely physical components like speakers, drone controls or a bulky camera grip, and don’t need software.

While this is an effort to position the phone as more than just a phone, a lot will depend on price. It’s telling that neither Samsung or LG were forthcoming on the price of their new accessories. The $99 Gear VR, however, comes for free if you pre-order one of the new Samsung phones.

LG said that there was an opportunity for its carrier partners to bundle some of the modules with the G5. You’re likely to see some of these products pop up in carrier stores, since these accessories tend to be a profitable business.

It’s whether you’re willing to buy into these products that will determine whether this is long-term trend or a momentary gimmick.

Samsung, LG have sold you their little black dress. Now they want you to accessorize – CNET