What do you do if you're a company with some good products, but pretty much zero mind share? If you're LG, you pack up a handful of journalists and bring 'em to Seoul for a week-long media tour. That's where I was last week -- Seoul, South Korea, where LG hosted a number of us for the launch of the Optimus G, some closed-door meetings, a little bit of sightseeing, a lot of great food, and a new understanding of how this crazy smartphone business works in general, and for LG in particular.
Meanwhile, the world went crazy for the iPhone 5. Bat-shit crazy.
It's been a little while since we last chatted. Let's make this one count, shall we?
The LG Media Tour
What can I say? When someone invites you to South Korea, I highly recommend you go. Yeah, it's a hell of a long way. Half a world away. The city is massive in scale, impressive in height, but it's also got a more friendly vibe than you might get in New York.
The Optimus G
The purpose of the trip was twofold: First, the launch of the Optimus G and the introduction of "G Style." (That goes along with the "L Style" line introduced at Mobile World Congress in the spring. Get it? L Style. G Style. LG Style.) It's very much a marriage of high-end hardware with an updated software experience, and LG's not messing around with this one. You're going to see a lot of it worldwide.
LG gave us each an Optimus G to use for a couple days. These were preproduction units, so there was a little of wonk to them, and I'm not yet passing final judgment. But my initial reaction was pretty good. The hardware is solid both in specs and build quality. The phone's a bit heavier than what you're probably used to. It's not a deal-breaker, especially given how thin it is. I'm also not sure exactly what hardware you're going to see where you live. Specs might change slightly, as might physical details. The version of the phone with the 8-megapixel camera actually slims down a tiny bit more, with the camera lens flush with the body of the phone, instead of sticking out ever so slight, as you get in the 13-megapixel version. We'll find out more with regional announcements over the next couple of months.
The software, while not quite final on the units we used, is decent. The user interface didn't wow me. LG's putting a lot of emphasis on the "user experience," but they're all kind of blurring together to me. Maybe I'm just getting bored with the current paradigm of widgets/icons/features. But LG has definitely loaded up on the features, much as Samsung's done with the latest version of TouchWiz. It'll be interesting to see just how many of these new features actually get used. QSlide is pretty ambitious. Say you're watching a movie, and you need to send a text or e-mail (or do something else). Instead of pausing the video, it turns transparent and sort of fades into the background, and you bang out a few quick sentences in the foreground. (A slider lets you control the transparency.) It works well, but how often is that really a thing?
The camera app is full of good features as well as some novelties -- no, I don't think I'm going to trigger the shutter by saying "Cheese!" or, worse, "LG!" QuickMemo takes a page from Samsung's Galaxy Note, letting you draw on top of just about anything.
Again, these are not bad things. Features are good. But simplicity is increasingly becoming a thing of the past, and I'm not sure that's a good thing as the smartphone market continues to attract first-time owners. High-end phones need not be burdened by gimmicks to be good.
More from Seoul
We had a series of meetings with folks from the hardware and software end of things. There were some pretty frank discussions, not unlike what we've been doing as part of the HTC Frequencies group. That sort of back-and-forth is invaluable. On one hand, it helps us understand the motives behind the hardware and software, and that's not something you can get from a press release, or even from using a phone. And it also lets us give unfiltered feedback directly to the manufacturer. Will it directly influence the next generation of smartphones? Probably not as much we'd like to think. But then again we're nerds, not designers or engineers, much as we might like to pretend we are. But it's that dialog -- the manufacturer telling us its story, and us sharing our thoughts -- that helps to shape both sides of the equation.
We also donned blue booties and yellow jackets and took a brief tour of a production facility, where we got a glimpse of stress testing -- torture testing, if you well, with thousands of repeated button-presses and screen touches. But the real gem was seeing a production line up-close. And, yes, we got to see a couple of unannounced U.S-bound smartphones being assembled. (Look at the recent headlines and you can probably guess what they are.) The assembly was impressively fast, and much more hands-on than you might expect. It's a mix of human and machine, ending with the hard-coding of the phone's unique identifiers, and finally the ROM itself. (A process that takes around 10 minutes.)
Fun fact: All the women working on the production line were on salary, I was told. Presumably there are quotas that must be met (and I have no idea what the pay scale is), but it's nice to see they're not working on a per-device-assembled basis.
What's next for LG?
So what's kept LG from breaking through in the States?
It's not that there haven't been chances. The Optimus Black hit Sprint and others as the LG Marquee, but it didn't get much traction. AT&T picked up the Nitro HD, our version of the Optimus LTE. And for what it's worth, Verizon has snagged the LG Intuition, aka the Optimus Vu. The Optimus S made a bit of a name for itself as a decent low-end/hacker-friendly phone. So it's not like we've had a shortage of brand-name material from LG.
On the other hand, LG's throwing more and more adjectives at its revamped user experience. It's newer, and it's better, but it's not that different. Comparing it to itself, sure. It's probably worthy of some superlatives. But up against the friendliness of HTC Sense, the "inspired by nature" TouchWiz from Samsung, as well as stock Android, is it really bringing anything we haven't seen before?
We're asking a lot of questions here, and we're not ready to answer them. We need some more time with this phone for that.
But we're going to be asking this question of you all, starting now: LG's got the pieces in place. What's kept it from making the big play?
The iPhone 5 and iOS 6
Make no mistake, folks. This is a great update to a great phone. That much is apparent in just a few minutes of playtime. (And if you have a few more minutes, check out iMore.com's excellent iPhone 5 primer and iOS 6 review.) Still, a few thoughts:
- Despite the slightly larger display -- it's up to 4 inches -- it still feels a bit like a toy. A high-quality, expensive toy, but dainty nonetheless.
- Apple's new Maps app -- part of iOS 6 and not just the iPhone 5 -- is a decidedly un-Apple way of doing things. It feels more like Google, actually, in that it was released without being anywhere near good -- never mind being anywhere near finished.
- Siri still kinda sucks. She's slow as hell on the iPad 2.
- I'm all for excitement over a new product. But with the iPhone, folks have their priorities all out of whack. How the hell do people have time to wait in line for days at an Apple store? Jobs? Families? Smart people preorder, and perhaps have a little patience.
- Whether or not Google does a new Nexus phone this fall, something has to be done about having a polished experience. Apple's still the king of this.
Phew. That's quite a bit for a Sunday. And there's no rest for the weary. We've got plenty more in store, and the fall CTIA event (erm, MobileCON, it's now called) is just two weeks away. Let's get to work.