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Suppliers, Carriers Ramp Up Efforts To Gain Smartphone Share

A mature smartphone market is contributing to slowing smartphone shipment growth, prompting vendors to ramp up efforts to boost sales and share during the fourth-quarter selling season.

Carriers Sprint and T-Mobile also racheted up their efforts to gain smartphone subscribers in a highly penetrated market.

To boost their numbers, Asus is ramping up efforts to sell unlocked GSM phones direct to consumers. For its part, Verizon teamed with Motorola to launch the industry’s first phone with drop-proof screen, and HTC launched one of the industry’s first phones with Android 6.0 Marshmallow OS.

Meantime, Sprint began offering a year of free Amazon prime with the purchase of select Samsung phones through Sprint-brand and Sprint/RadioShack stores. And T-Mobile unveiled its next “Uncarrier” strategy.

Saturation point: Globally, the third quarter marked “the smartphone industry’s slowest growth rate for six years since the depths of the global economic recession back in 2009,” said Strategy Analytics director Linda Sui. “Smartphone growth is slowing due to increasing penetration maturity in [the] major markets of the U.S., Europe and China.”

Global shipments rose 10 percent to 354 million units, Strategy Analytics said.

A Pew Research Center survey conducted in June and July found 68 percent of U.S. adults currently own a smartphone, up from 35 percent four years ago. Smartphone ownership is nearing the saturation point with some groups, Pew added. Eighty-six percent of people ages 18-29 have a smartphone, as do 83 percent of people ages 30-49 and 87 percent of those living in households earning $75,000 and up annually.

For its part, ComScore found that 92 percent of all people ages 13 and up own a cellphone, up from 2004’s 65 percent, and that 77.4 percent of all cellphone users own a smartphone, or 192.4 million people.

As a result, U.S. smartphone-shipment growth slowed from 63 percent in 2010 to 47 percent in 2011, 13 percent in 2012, and 14 percent in 2013 and 2014, Strategy Analytics said. In the first quarter of 2015, growth hit 24 percent but fell to 4 percent in the second quarter and 9 percent in the third quarter.

“The ball is now in device makers’ court to invent a new wave of mobile devices to re-spur growth for the next decade,” said Strategy Analytics executive director Neil Mawston.

To gain share in a slower market, here’s what various companies and carriers plan for the Christmas selling season:

Asus: The computer maker expanded its selection of unlocked GSM phones for the U.S. market with the introduction of ZenFone 2 Laser, which is optimized for picture taking and includes laser autofocusing previously available only in LG phones in the U.S.

The company’s first unlocked U.S. phones were launched in May. The new LTE-equipped Android 5.0 ZenFone 2 Laser steps up to a processor running at 4×1.7GHz plus 4x1Ghz with 3GB RAM. It’s available this month in 32GB and 64GB versions at $199 and $249, respectively, at Newegg and the Asus store.

The new phone features a 5.5-inch 1080p display with 401PPI and high sensitivity for use with gloves. An enhanced PixelMaster 2.0 camera features laser auto-focus for quick autofocusing, 13-megapixel rear camera with wide-angle F/2.0 aperture five-element lens, and dual-LED real-tone flash to capture images in low-light situations while maintaining natural skin tones.

BlackBerry: BlackBerry’s first Android phone, the Priv, became available in AT&T stores and at at $249 with a two-year contract, $739 without contract, and on no-contract Next installment-payment plans ranging from $24.67 over 30 months to $37/month over 20 months.

The Android 5.1.1-based Priv slider combines BlackBerry security features such as encryption and a BlackBerry physical keyboard with the ability to access the Google Play store’s extensive Android app library.

HTC: The 5-inch A9 smartphone, one of the industry’s first smartphones with Android 6.0 Marshmallow OS, became available through AT&T and Sprint along with unlocked versions available direct to consumers from HTC.

Audio, video and photo capabilities are also among the phone’s key selling points.

HTC’s unlocked models, priced at $499, consist of an A9 that works on the AT&T and T-Mobile networks and a separate unlocked SKU for the Sprint network. HTC also plans a software update that will enable the unlocked T-Mobile/AT&T phone to operate on the Verizon network, but only in LTE mode, with full voice, data, and messaging with a previously activated SIM, a spokesperson previously said.

HTC’s unlocked models will let consumers switch carriers as well as unlock the bootloader without voiding the warranty. The HTC-sold versions also come with six months of unlimited music streaming from Google Play.

The phone is HTC’s first with fingerprint sensor, which supports Google’s Android Pay app. Other key features include 5-inch AMOLED FullHD display, 3GB RAM, 32GB storage, an octacore Qualcomm processor running at 4×1.5GHz+4×1.2GHz, and external microSD Card slot accepting 2TB storage.

Key audio features include 192kHz/24-bit audio DAC, ability to decode FLAC and WAV files, and a high-output headphone amp to drive large headphones and provide more volume and dynamic range. The main 13-megapixel camera optical image stabilization and uncompressed RAW file capture.

Verizon: The carrier refreshed its Droid phone lineup with the launch of the Motorola-made Droid Maxx 2 and Droid Turbo 2, whose screen is promoted as the industry’s first to survive everyday drops, including face-down drops on concrete.

Both phones get multiple upgrades, from screen sizes to cameras and processing power.

Both new models feature Android OS 5.1, an upgrade to Android 6.0 Marshmallow, and Verizon XLTE service. Both are world phones with quad-band GSM and multi-band W-CDMA/HSPA. Both also feature HD Voice and 21-megapixel main camera with dual- LED CCT (color-corrected temperature) flash.

The Turbo 2 comes with 5.4-inch QuadHD 2560 by 1440 display, 2GHz 64-bit octacore processor, 3GB RAM, 21-megapixel main camera with 4K 30fps video capture, 5-megapixel front camera with flash and wide-angle lens, and 2TB microSD card slot,.

The Droid Maxx 2 costs $384 without contract, and the 32GB Droid Turbo 2 costs $624. The 64GB Turbo 2 costs $720.