Monday, 19 January 2015

Accessory vs. built-in functionality: what’s the way to go?

A lot needs to go into smartphone design. It frankly takes a lot of design and brainpower to pack all the stuff into a super slim case and still make it beautiful. So when some features like selfie flashes start to become a thing, phone OEMs start needing to make some calls.
Of course, selfie flashes are the meat of this article because of Lenovo’s recent CES offering – the Vibe Extension selfie flash. This battery-operated accessory is small, fits in your pocket, and plugs into the headphone jack on your phone. It’s a great solution to a problem many phones have – no flash on the front facer. Many selfies are taken in environments that could certainly use some flash love – bars, nightclubs, dark alleys after muggings, etc. – but many phones are ill-equipped.

selfie-flashNot just flashes

I could just as easily be talking about any mobile accessory though – bluetooth speakers are another good example. But the point of the accessory is it should add value that makes it worth carrying with you. Plus it needs to have a very specific use so you can carry it when you need it, and leave it at home when you don’t.
So, enter Lenovo who makes this selfie flash. This allows your phone to finally be able to take those post-mugging selfies, a market I think we’ll all agree is vastly underserved. So, just drop that bad boy into your purse, backpack or pocket, and you are good to go, regardless of the device you have.

No boundaries

This is a great concept because it’s adding a utility to your phone that it doesn’t already have nor would be particularly easy to build in. At the end of the day, the chassis of your phone is going to be a finite size and every cubic millimeter inside is going to be accounted for by something. Deciding where to cut corners can be a daunting task, especially when adding something that only a small percentage of your customers will actually use.
Accessories can also add a ton on utility that won’t otherwise physically fit in your phone. Whether it’s a bluetooth speaker, or a selfie flash, those will likely perform better than the equipment included on your phone. So much so, that they justify themselves, almost with a single use.

And yet…

The main problem with accessories is also their main advantage – they’re not attached to your phone. There is no guarantee that the accessory will be on you when you need it. I don’t know about you, but my backpack and pockets are all pretty packed at this point. Adding one more thing isn’t really a big deal, but adding one more thing that I’ll use maybe 1% of my time is just annoying and it’s just another thing to keep track of.
At the end of the day, if you don’t have it, it doesn’t help your phone one iota now does it? I’m not saying that’s a bad thing, but some phones have actually been able to build that functionality into their frames. The HTC Desire Eye has a front facing flash, so it’s always there. The utility of that fact can’t be underestimated. Much like a smartwatch, it’s always there when you need it no exceptions.

HTC Desire Eye front cameraIn your face

Plus, much like wireless charging, it’s the best way to get the public to use your feature. If you believe in a feature so much, then it needs to be built into your device. Put it right there, right in your face – literally in the case of the selfie flash. Only when it’s not optional will someone actually take the time to learn and use it. If you hang a selfie flash from a store display right next to the phone, it will hang there forever.
So it’s a bit of an enigma. Do you build something into a phone and force everyone to use what maybe useful to only a small percentage of the phone-buying population. Or, do you count on accessories to fill the gap where normal phone functionality doesn’t quite measure up? It’s a question that many OEMs have asked themselves and one I think doesn’t have a clear answer. I’m personally not much of an accessory kind of guy, and I’m more than willing to use what an OEM gives me, but at the same time, I don’t really mug people, so a selfie flash isn’t all that important to me.

The debate is on!

What do you think? Bear in mind, we’re not talking specifically about selfie-flashes. We’re talking about using an accessory as opposed to using a feature that’s actually built into the phone. Post your thoughts about the topic down in the comments and let’s see if we can figure this out.
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