LG — oh, sweet, sweet LG.
When the Little Phone-Maker That Couldn't™ announced it was stepping back from the rat race earlier this year and focusing on fewer models with longer shelf lives — "unveil[ing] new smartphones when it is needed," as the company put it — I was mildly optimistic it could mark the start of a promising new trend.
Then came this week's launch of the LG G7 ThinQ (gesundheit!). And, well, we're right back to square one of the typical LG game plan.
At first glance, the G7 ThinQ seems like a textbook example of what would happen if a company were guided solely by its marketing department, with no product-oriented people leading the charge. It feels like the result of too many cooks in the kitchen without a single unifying vision — like a product based on focus studies and misguided market analysis instead of some deeper instinct and understanding of what makes a phone special.
Case in point: The G7 ThinQ has a notch because all the hot phones are using notches these days, so clearly that must be why people are buying them. The G7 ThinQ has a dedicated button for the Google Assistant because Samsung's market-leading flagships have dedicated buttons for a virtual assistant, so clearly that must be what people want. The G7 ThinQ is all about the "artificial intelligence" because everything cool these days is about artificial intelligence, so clearly that must be what makes people pay attention.
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LG's G7 ThinQ, in other words, is basically an amalgam of buzzwords thrown together to create a marketing-ready concept. The problem is that buzzwords alone can't make a phone compelling — or successful.
That's the big-picture view, anyway. Now let's jump into some specifics. (Tap, tap, tap. Is this thing on?)
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1. The name
Look, there's no way around it: The name of this phone is hilarious. (Making matters worse, "ThinQ" is apparently pronounced "thin-queue." Totally not kidding.) Nowadays, a phone name needs to be memorable and iconic — not some random gibberish that seems like the result of too many team brainstorming sessions.
All this thing needs is "LTE" and a few extra numbers tacked onto its end, and we'll be right back in the days of the "Samsung Galaxy S2 Epic 4G Touch."
2. The upgrade promise
LG says, in the vaguest possible terms, that the G7 ThinQ will receive "continuous upgrades." Pardon me whilst I do a quick exaggerated virtual spit-take…
Still here? Cool. We all know the deal with LG's software support record by now, right? The company's only real upgrade-related strength is in managing to do very little while making it look like it's doing a lot. To be fair, its narrative-spinning skills can be impressive — but not for the reasons anyone thinking about buying a new phone would want.
A promise of "continuous upgrades" from LG is like a promise of "taking users' privacy seriously" from Facebook. At what point can we all just start openly laughing when stuff like this comes up?
3. The A.I. angle
I've said it before, and I'll say it again: "Artificial intelligence" has become meaningless marketing jargon. It's the mobile tech marketing buzzword of the moment (along with, of course, anything about bezels).
The G7 ThinQ uses the buzzword to tout its Assistant button (okay…) and also a feature of its camera that supposedly identifies certain types of objects in the view and then optimizes its settings accordingly. The proof is in the pudding (mmm, pudding), but early real-world tests leave plenty of room for doubt about how effective this'll actually be in practical terms — especially compared to the already-excellent cameras currently available in other companies' phones.
Plain and simple, "having A.I." (and touting the fact that you "have A.I.") isn't enough. Using A.I. in a way that meaningfully enhances the user experience and adds value to someone's life is what counts — and so far, at least, LG's effort seems to be more about branding and buzzword implementation than anything.
4. The broader LG issue
LG's problem has long been finding a compelling vision for its phones — an approach that identifies a true raison d'être and recognizes a phone as being more than just the sum of its parts. A collection of impressive components is fine, but it's been an awfully long time since that alone has been enough to make a device stand out.
I started talking about this issue back in 2015, in fact, while reviewing the G4:
Despite its progress from year to year, LG hasn't figured out how to pull together individual pieces into something that feels cohesive and special.
And that's exactly what comes to mind when looking at the new G7 ThinQ. Sure, the G7 ThinQ may appeal to diehard LG fans who are already buying LG phones — but there clearly aren't enough such folks to keep the company afloat.
With its Pixel phones, Google focuses on a software-centric experience in a way no other Android manufacturer attempts. With its Galaxy phones, Samsung emphasizes premium build quality and the familiar consistency of its own internal ecosystem. So what makes the G7 ThinQ stand out in a meaningful way from everyone else — in a way that'll make people actually sit up and take notice?
In 2018, it's sure as hell not a smartphone's specs that are gonna do it, at least not on any large scale. Few people buy phones today because they have especially bright screens or loud speakers. Hardware in and of itself has become commoditized, and the difference between "great" and "maybe a teensy bit better" is barely even perceptible anymore. If a phone is going to make any significant impact at this point, it has to have that inspiration, that vision — something about it as a whole that makes it seem exceptional in a sea of similar-looking slates.
At the start of this year, I wrote about eight Android narratives to approach with skepticism in 2018. Number two on the list: "This is the year LG will make a phone that matters!"
As I said at the time:
It's like clockwork: Every year, we hear endless hype about some phenomenal new LG phone. Every year, the phone has some crazy new concept or technology that generates endless buzz and headlines. And every year, the phone fails to deliver any sort of exceptional experience — and fails to make any sort of significant splash in the greater Android ecosystem. …
That's LG in a nutshell: lots of scattered ideas without a cohesive vision. It's a company characterized "by a great deal of effort and very little effect," as The Verge put it in 2015. Time and time again, year after year, it's the same ol' story. Once the initial excitement fades, the phones end up being of little real-world consequence — and the sales end up reflecting that.
Part of me had hoped this would be the year that would change — the year the healthy grain of salt surrounding LG's latest and greatest would finally prove to be unnecessary.
After seeing the pitch for the G7 ThinQ — well, let's just say I won't be putting that salt away anytime soon.
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[Android Intelligence videos at Computerworld]