What's in a name? It's a question I've been pondering lately while thinking about Android phones.
For the past week, I've been using Sony's new Xperia Z1S device. It's a standout phone with a distinctive design, premium build, and lots of compelling qualities. Its 21-megapixel camera can even shoot photos and videos underwater.
Despite all of that, if I were a betting man, I probably wouldn't put my money on the Xperia Z1S making much of a splash when it lands in America later this month. But not because of anything related to the phone itself.
Rather, it all starts with -- you guessed it -- the name. "Sony" and "Xperia" simply aren't strong brands when it comes to smartphones in the States right now, and the Android ecosystem has matured to the point where a device's brand is one of the most important factors in determining how well it'll sell.
It ties into a little thing I like to call "the Galaxy effect": With its massive marketing efforts and well-established brand recognition, Samsung has reached an Apple-like level within the Android world. And by that, I mean it's basically guaranteed to have an instant smash-hit with any new flagship phone it releases -- usually, at least on some level, to the detriment of equally compelling competing devices.
After all, let's face it: While the Galaxy S4 was a fine phone, it was far from being in a league of its own in 2013. Yet by most measures, its sales dwarfed those of every other Android phone on the market -- including some of the year's most critically acclaimed products.
As I used the Z1S this past week, something occurred to me: If you imagine this phone as a Galaxy device -- the same exact phone being presented with Samsung branding, say as the oft-rumored "premium" version of the company's Galaxy S flagship -- it's easy to envision the Internet flipping out with excitement: people gushing about how Samsung had delivered a stunning new premium design, critics praising the company for finally showing some restraint with its Android UI, and ads showing up everywhere convincing the world the "next big thing" had arrived.
In fact, I'd bet that if we took the Z1S out onto the streets today with all of its identifying marks obscured and told regular phone-buying folks it was a new premium "Galaxy S5 Plus" model, most of 'em would ooh and ahh without a second thought. (Paging Jimmy Kimmel...)
Back to reality, though, it's hard to envision the phone commanding that level of attention as it sits on a shelf beneath an inconspicuous "Xperia Z1S" sign.
The message here isn't that the Z1S is perfect -- like most smartphones, it has its pros and cons -- but rather that quality alone is no longer enough in this game. (Just ask HTC.) If Android manufacturers want to have a shot at Samsung-like success, they're going to have to start thinking like Samsung and finding a way to turn their brands into household names.
When Sony announced the Z1S's predecessor one year ago, I said the company needed three connected things if it wanted to achieve relevancy in America: focus, with more emphasis on fewer products; ubiquity, with no signs of the carrier-exclusive kiss of death; and bold and memorable marketing, as mentioned above.
Here we are, a year later, with an even stronger device in Sony's hands -- and despite the quality of its product, the same three challenges still stand in its way.