Smartphone Accessories: A Burgeoning Market

In recent years, smartphone attachments and accessories have become a pervasive trend. There are a myriad of different devices that either amplify the functions of a smartphone or add new features. For example, phone cases that double as chargers increase the battery life of mobile phones, while protecting or personalizing them. Other accessories include portable speakers, camera lenses, and more utilitarian accessories, such as mounts for the dashboard of a car and cases that double as card wallets. One such useful device is the Xistera, a multi-tool that clips onto an iPhone 5 and functions as a lens adapter, stand/tripod mount, stylus, and even a bottle opener.

The market for all of these attachments generates a lot of business. According to Future Market Insights, mobile phone accessories totaled $62 billion in 2015. Phone cases and headphones have led sales, but power banks and portable chargers are predicted to become a larger part of the market. According to Statista data, sales of smartphones themselves are still on a general upward trend, but global sales to end users actually saw a small slowdown in early 2015; sales fell from 367.33 million units in the fourth quarter of 2014 to 336.06 million in the first quarter of 2015. By December 2015, however, they were back to a higher level than in 2014: 403.12 million devices.

The domestic market for smartphone attachments is more competitive than that of smartphones, which is dominated by five major companies, namely Apple and Samsung. Attachments, by contrast, are marketed by hundreds of different companies. Smartphone manufacturers themselves are usually not major players. Apple did introduce its own phone charging case to compete with the popular Mophie – however, it is debatable which has better name recognition in the phone charging market. Also, consumers may perceive that introducing its own charging case is recognition by Apple that its device’s battery life – already a sore point among many users – is inadequate.

One of the most intriguing aspects of mobile accessories is their potential to disrupt the sales of traditional devices. The effect of smartphones themselves on the sales of compact digital cameras has been well documented. According to data marketing research firm IDC provided to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, sales of digital cameras fell 30% in 2013 alone. Compact digital cameras are not alone; long considered too high-end to be affected by the smartphone camera phenomenon, makers of DSLRs and other high-quality cameras are now feeling the pinch.

According to The Wall Street Journal, Lens maker Tamron saw a 22% decline in the number of interchangeable camera lenses sold in the first three quarters of 2013, compared to one year earlier. Tamron general manager Tsugio Tsuchiya said in an interview with the newspaper, “Smartphones pose a threat not just to compact cameras but entry-level DSLRs as well.” Christopher Chute, a digital-imaging research director at IDC, also told The Wall Street Journal that he believes that some consumers are choosing to spend their money on smartphones and tablets rather than a stand-alone (single function) highend camera. He also said that consumers are evaluating gadgets based on software and Internet integration, rather than the hardware specifics that are a big part of a highend camera’s appeal.

Smartphones don’t need many additional bells and whistles to overwhelm the market share of compact digital cameras – they are smaller, offer comparable if not equivalent picture quality, and have many other features besides built-in cameras (including photo editing apps). When it comes to DSLR disruption, however, that’s where smartphone attachments really come into their own. There’s the $79.99 Olloclip 4-in-1 lens, which simply clips onto the iPhone itself and gives users the option of four different photo lenses. Further upmarket is the $279 iPro Lens System, which is a lens integrated into a case for the iPhone, and which called “the best glass for DLSR-quality results.” Tripod mounts for smartphones are also available.

There are attachments that do not simply add new features, but which amplify the smartphone’s communicatory abilities. These “communications attachments” include the Beartooth and Thuraya Satsleeve devices. The Beartooth is a device that allows off-grid communication when using a smartphone – enabling its users to be connected when in a remote area without service, or in an area where the network is overloaded (such as a concert or large sporting event). At $249 for two units (the preorder price, regular retail will be $399), the Beartooth may be high cost for what seems, at first glance, to be the smartphone version of a two-way radio. However, the device not only enables users to talk off the grid, but text as well as use GPS-endabled maps.

Ellie Van Dyke, the marketing director for Beartooth, tells Consumers’ Research that she is confident about the disruptive ability of the device. She said, “Beartooth will disrupt the market of off-grid communication devices. Beartooth gives consumers a simple and high-quality experience that’s lacking in today’s two-way comms.”

According to Van Dyke, the drawbacks of traditional handheld radios are many. She said they are often cumbersome and difficult to use, with many channel settings, radio protocols, and button sequences. Beartooth, she said, has the benefit of additional features such as higher-quality voice communication, mesh networking, voice and text encryption, and what she described as “frequency hopping spread spectrum,” which allows for an “almost unlimited number of ‘virtual’ channels.” Theoretically, this means users would not experience the problem of interference on their channel and would only communicate with the people they want to. This also means the Beartooth would be limited in communicating with outside parties such as emergency personnel – which does not seem to be the intended purpose of the device. Since it is sold in pairs, it is meant for communication among set groups of users.

Another communication attachment is the Thuraya Satsleeve. This is a satellite phone adapter for the Android or iPhone that typically retails in the $500 to $600 range. Unlike the premium the Beartooth commands over traditional two-way radios, conventional satellite phones often retail for hundreds of dollars more than the Satsleeve.

Thuraya’s director of products, Rashid Baba, stated in a trade magazine produced by Satellite Evolution Group that the company will achieve disruption by emulating companies like SpaceX and Google. Baba said that the priority of many satellite communications companies has been to focus on factors such as durability and targeting their products to the mining, energy, and defense customers that many people perceive as the primary market for satellite phones. He further stated, “Thuraya’s ultimate aim is to challenge – and possibly change – that old perception by putting more focus on introducing more consumer-friendly elements into our product development. Consumer-friendly products would include those like the Satsleeve smartphone satellite device.

The smartphone camera and its complementary attachments have measurably disrupted the digital camera market. As the technical capability of attachments (and the smartphone itself ) increases, there’s no doubt new devices will come on the market with the potential to disrupt existing technologies.

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