The tech world has been speculating feverishly about the upcoming launch of Apple’s latest iPhone, but analysts say that regardless of what the company unveils on Tuesday, Apple is unlikely to unseat current smartphone market leader Samsung.
"Will they catch up [to Samsung]?" says John Pliniussen, professor of innovation and internet marketing at Queen’s School of Business in Kingston, Ont.
"Never - unless they come out with something that’s a paradigm shift from the current smartphone. And I can’t imagine what that is."
Apple is gearing up for a launch event at Apple Campus in Cupertino, Calif., on Sept. 10. As with most Apple product launches, the actual substance of the presentation remains under wraps, but industry watchers expect the company to present a new iteration of its iPhone, the 5S, as well as a more affordable version called the 5C.
Pliniussen says there has been talk that Apple could introduce new fingerprint-recognition technology, which would be more secure than the iPhone’s current password system. It would also make things like online shopping and banking on a phone – anything that currently requires a password – more convenient.
The invitation to the Apple event features an array of vibrantly coloured circles and the slogan "This should brighten everyone’s day," which many have taken as a clue that the company is also planning to release its new iPhone in a wider assortment of colours.
Hugues de la Vergne, principal analyst in consumer technology for Gartner, doesn’t expect "any near-term wow features" from the upcoming Apple launch.
He thinks that Apple is likely working on an assortment of screen sizes, improving resolution and enhancing battery life.
Dwindling market share
While Apple still enjoys a reputation for creating game-changing technology, it has been losing market share in the smartphone space to South Korea-based Samsung, as well as other Asian competitors that use the Google Android operating system.
According to the latest figures from Gartner, Apple’s share of the worldwide smartphone market has shrunk four per cent since 2012. Samsung currently commands 31.7 per cent of worldwide smartphone sales, compared to Apple’s 14.2 per cent.
This is a far cry from six years ago, when Apple revolutionized the smartphone with must-have hardware. The first iPhone, which came out in 2007, was largely seen as game-changer in terms of its design and functionality.
But that put Apple squarely in the cross-hairs of competitors. The 12 to 18 months following its release saw a flurry of "novel and exciting" smartphones from companies such as Samsung and LG, says Kaan Yigit, president of the Solutions Research Group in Toronto.
Since then, this market category has matured significantly, to the point where almost all of the products more or less do the same thing, Yigit says.
"For the average consumer, what are they doing with the device? They’re taking their kids’ pictures, emailing or putting them on Facebook, texting, calling," he says.
Because these features have become standard on smartphones, "it’s difficult to get people excited" about incremental upgrades, Yigit says.
One of the reasons that Samsung has managed to remain the market leader, says de la Vergne, is that it offers consumers a wide variety of screen sizes. Its current offerings include the Ace IIe (3.8-inch display) and the Galaxy S4 (five inches). Last week, Samsung revealed details about the Galaxy Note 3 (5.7 inches), which is seen as a hybrid of a phone and tablet (or "phablet").
Apple has largely stuck with the same screen size, making the iPhone 5 (four inches) only marginally larger than its predecessors (3.5 inches).
Tapping emerging markets
Another reason Samsung has been able to outdistance Apple is because of its lower pricing and penetration into huge markets such as China and India, says Plinuissen.
There are indications, however, that Apple is making a more concerted push into China, where the iPhone has seen lacklustre sales compared to lower-priced, Android-equipped devices made by companies such Samsung, Lenovo and LG.
Media reports suggest Apple is close to signing a deal with China Mobile, a telecom with 700 million subscribers.
If Apple does indeed come out with a less expensive device, it would be primarily aimed at such emerging markets, says de la Vergne.
"I think it has the potential to be significant for Apple. These are markets where they’ve been priced out of the majority of the market. A good piece of that market has gone to Samsung and Android [products] in general."
Then again, signing a deal with China Mobile in 2009 has done little to reverse the fortunes of Canadian smartphone maker BlackBerry.
Pliniussen says that Apple still has the ability to wow consumers, but at this stage of the game, it’s no longer enough.
"Can Apple be number one in terms of the coolest technology? Yes. The coolest colours? Yes. The coolest gizmos? Yes. Will that translate into the biggest sales? No, because sadly, the majority of the world doesn’t give a shit about that," says Pliniussen.
"The majority of the world wants access and basic features."