If you read this on a phone, chances are that LG did not succeed. The Korean technology giant has been losing money and market share with its smartphone division for years, so it was no surprise when it finally announced plans to pull the plug today. You may be forgiven for shrugging.
But LG deserves to be remembered as more than just one also driven. The phones were rarely big hits, much less often the type of polished product we would ever recommend to most over the competition. Despite this, LG introduced several features and innovations that the phone world would have been worse off without. For example, the company was the first to put ultra-wide cameras on its phones, and it was groundbreaking for the type of screen, smartphone design without a button that dominates the market today.
And especially in the US, where Android competition is extremely low, the loss of LG will only anchor the Apple-Samsung duopoly at the high end. LG is the third largest phone seller in the United States, with about 1
LG had some claims to be a keyboard maker in the world before the smartphone. Its chocolate and enV phones were stylish devices that helped LG expand its brand recognition worldwide. But after the iPhone and Android changed everything, LG struggled to adapt. I am here obliged to mention the original LG Prada, which had a capacitive touch screen and was technically announced just before the iPhone, but the true legacy is mostly people who point to it in online comments.
LG’s early Android phones were not impressive. The 2011 Nitro HD, for example, was the first splashy flagship device in a long time, but it was put on with outdated, bulky software and poor battery life. The successor, the Optimus G, represented some improvement, and when the G2 came out in 2012, LG’s new G-Series was a fairly credible alternative to those like Samsung or HTC. For example, the G2 was one of the first flagship smartphones to try to cut down on the frame size, and LG made the buttons on the screen an important part of the design long before most others.
It was also around this time that LG found a new partner in Google, which released two Nexus phones in a row. Nexus 4 2012 was built around the guts of the Optimus G, and it had its fans despite its crippling lack of LTE, weak battery life and unimpressive camera. Next year’s Nexus 5 found an even stronger cult feel despite the fact that it also had a bad camera and poor battery life. (The red version looked good, and the $ 349 price did not hurt.)
LG’s mobile division continued to tick, showing respectable phones such as the G3 and G4 without challenging Samsung. The software was still a cumbersome adaptation of Android, and LG continued to lag behind peers with its pace of updates, but the hardware was solid. It was the 2016 G5 where things really started to fall apart. Designed around a series of interchangeable module accessories called “Friends”, the phone flopped, and LG pretended it never happened. Suffice it to say that if you bought a camera grip or a DAC Hi-Fi audio accessory for your G5, it would not be able to make friends with the G6 from 2017.
It is unfortunate that LG focused on gimmicks with the G5 because that phone introduced a new feature that would become ubiquitous in the smartphone market years later: the ultra-wide camera. Ultrawides on smartphones allow people to take pictures that were previously limited to camera heads, and it’s hard to imagine buying a new phone without one today. But it took a long time for other phone manufacturers to figure out the tool; Apple introduced its first in 2019, for example.
The V20, released the same year as the G5, had another unique feature that would become a hallmark of the company’s phones for years: an honest-to-God headphone jack the year Apple decided to discard it. And not just any headphone jack – one that worked with a built-in quad-DAC designed to enhance sound quality and appeal to audio files. Did this sell many phones? Well no. But it became a hallmark of LG’s advanced devices since then, providing an alternative for wired headphone enthusiasts who despaired as other phone makers followed Apple’s lead one by one.
The 2017 G6 got the G-Series back on track. It was the first major smartphone to be released with a now known higher aspect ratio, with an even stronger focus on eliminating frames than ever before. Of course, not many people noticed that Samsung immediately followed the similar, but slimmer Galaxy S8 and its “Infinity Display.” Later that year, LG released the V30, which had a completely new (and very nice) design, but it will always be difficult to sell when the most differentiated feature is your (also very nice) haptics system.
From here on out, LG’s flagship phones became mostly blurry to one. The G7 was a pretty good fax of an iPhone X, even winning an Editor’s Choice designation from The edge editor Dan Seifert. The V40 was groundbreaking for the now standard triple camera setup. The G8X came with a dual-screen case that in hindsight, Microsoft’s Surface Duo really did not improve much after a year later. However, all of these phones looked basically identical to each other, and none of their main features were seen as much more than gimmicks at the time.
For any good idea LG had, there would be something meaningless like the G8’s vein sensing “Hand ID” lock. Despite the fact that the company made a big announcement about a new software upgrade center to increase the pace of Android updates, nothing changed. And in the face of Samsung’s unstoppable marketing machine, LG’s best attempt at a brand identity was to add “ThinQ” to the name of every flagship phone.
In the last year, LG’s mobile division moved to solve the problems. The Explorer project was intended to produce more innovative designs, such as the beautiful but understated velvet and oddball dual-screen Wing. At CES this year, the company announced a roll-out concept phone that they said they planned to bring to market.
It will never happen now, and it is difficult to say that there is a big loss with companies like Oppo and TCL that will probably get slack with their own versions. But in the context of the US phone market, there will be fewer choices, and whoever ends up taking into account LG’s lost market share is hardly a creative replacement.
LG’s phones were rarely, if ever, the best available, but the company made a significant impact on the smartphone world in general. With the demise of the mobile division, the American market becomes even more homogeneous.