Between one ZenFone 5 and another, has Asus lost its phone Zen?

 

Four years can be a long time in the world of technology.

It was slightly less than four years ago, when Asus, a Taiwan-based brand better known in India for its computer hardware (and making the Google Nexus 7 tablet!), surprised everyone when it launched the Asus ZenFone 5, an Android smartphone that laid siege to the likes of the Moto G with its excellent design, hardware, and software. This was not Asus’ first sally in smartphone waters – the company had launched some Windows Mobile devices in the past, some of which were surprisingly affordable (it had a model for around Rs 10,000 with a stylus, which, in 2007, was a big deal!) – but while its earlier efforts had seemed muted, the ZenFone 5 launch in 2014 was a big affair. The company had tied up with Intel for processors, had come out with a very well crafted UI skin of its own, and had even packed in a decent camera into the package.

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The result was an exceptional device for its price tag of Rs 9999. This is what we had written in our review of the device:

It is by far the best phone in the sub-Rs 10,000 category in the Indian market and one of the best in the sub-USD 200 one worldwide. Does it best the Moto G? Comfortably. And it costs almost a fourth lesser. If that does not tell the tale, nothing will.

The phone did rather well in the Indian market, making Asus one of the leading players in the affordable smartphone segment – and it was still a very competitive segment at that time with the Nokia Lumia series still alive and kicking. Fast forward four years to the Mobile World Congress at Barcelona this year, and Asus came out with another device called the ZenFone 5. Logically, you would have thought that the company would have consolidated on the brilliant start made by the first phone that came with that nomenclature, and would be among the leading smartphone players in the market.

Well…not quite. Not quite.

No shortage of innovation

For the period between the first ZenFone 5 and the latest saw the Taiwanese company traverse a path that seemed a curious blend of the good, the odd and the mediocre. The sad part was that it kept innovating in this time, but for a variety of reasons, just was not able to capitalize on these to the extent it probably should have.

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If that sounds odd, then consider what followed in the wake of the first ZenFone 5. It was not as if Asus had been content to find a niche and then sit on it. No, the company went right ahead and came up with the ZenFone 2, which was one of the first smartphones to come with 4 GB RAM, and followed it up with the big battery ZenFone Max, the and the ZenFone Zoom, which added an optical zoom to the phone camera without making the lens extend outside. The company also got into the headlines with its FonePad, a calling tablet; and the very innovative PadFone, which was a phone that could also fit modularity into a larger tablet.

No, if there was one thing that you could not accuse Asus of, it was of standing still. And yet, it found itself being left behind in the smartphone race.

Tripping on too many variants

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There were many reasons for this. And almost every analyst and observer has his or her own take on why the brand did not do better in spite of putting in so much effort and making so many clear innovations. However, one point on which almost everyone agrees is that Asus perhaps stretched the ZenFone brand a bit too far. When the first ZenFone 5 was launched, it had four variants. In fact, in 2014, Asus seemed to be following a pattern of naming phones by their display size – the phones with a 5.0-inch display were called ZenFone 5, those with 4.0 and 4.5-inch displays were called ZenFone 4 and those with 6.0-inch displays were called, you guessed it, ZenFone 6.

That, however, changed with the ZenFone 2. Asus used the ZenFone 2 nomenclature across close to ten different models, some of which were very similar to each other. The result was a good deal of confusion at both media and consumer level – if you had a ZenFone 2, you could have a device 4 GB RAM or 2 GB RAM, with a 5.5-inch full HD display or a 5-inch HD one. The ZenFone 3 further muddied these waters, with the name being used with almost a dozen variants. The ZenFone 4 followed in its footsteps when it came to nomenclature. And all of this meant that consumers and even reviewers often had very little idea of which device was being referred to when someone talked of a ZenFone.

Trying to be premium, clogging up the UI

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Added to this was Asus’ ambition to move up the price ladder. While the first ZenFone 5 was a solid value for money proposition, its successors made less convincing cases, notwithstanding some very high profile launches (we remarked on one of them). The ZenFone 2 cost twice as much as its predecessor, and rode on the reputation of being one of the first smartphones with 4GB RAM, but even then there were mutterings that its Intel chip was not quite in the same league as those found on devices found in the emerging budget smartphone segment, which were in the same price range. Undeterred, the company continued its way up the price ladder and the ZenFone 3 cost more than the ZenFone 2, even though its base variants did not boast the sort of hardware the Xiaomi Mi 5 and the OnePlus 3 did. Yes, the ZenFone brand had more variants now than ever before, but unlike the initial ZenFone 5 which staked a claim for the budget smartphone title and nothing else, now you had different variants fighting it out at different price points. The ZenFone 4 did not improve matters much. And not aiding their cause was the fact that OnePlus and Xiaomi were tightening their grip on the budget and budget flagship segments of the Android market. This was also the period when the likes of Honor, Oppo, and Vivo began to make their presence felt. Asus seemed jumbled in comparison, with a lot of devices – too many, actually – and no clear positioning.

 

Jumbled was also the word most people would have used to describe Asus’ UI for the ZenFone series. The ZenUI on the first ZenFone 5 was full of added apps but had a relatively clean interface and did not lag much. That however changed with more apps being added to the list to the extent that each ZenFone literally came with dozens of apps pre-installed, many of which replicated the functions of existing apps that anyway came with Android – browsers, mail clients and so on. Asus also was seen as lagging on delivering timely software updates to its devices – no easy task when you consider the number of variants.

Have things changed?

So by the time the second ZenFone 5 came around, it was as if its creator had traversed the entire path that led from ecstasy to agony. Or was it? For, if initial indications are anything to go by, while the ‘notch’ on the ZenFone 5 did grab attention, with many calling it the “iPhone X clone running Android,” a number of challenges remain. The prices are expected to remain on the higher side for the higher end models, which would mean once again tangling with the likes of OnePlus, Xiaomi and now also Motorola and Nokia. And while Asus has been very impressive in cleaning up ZenUI and also delivering software updates to its older models (the ZenFone 3 has been updated to Android Oreo), there are many who feel that it might be undone once again by its pricing, positioning, and multiple variant strategy.

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Of course, there is also the chance that the brand could tighten matters up, focus on fewer variants, and perhaps even crack the price puzzle. For, no matter how much one might criticise Asus’ strategy, the company’s phones have been by and large very good, and as we also pointed out, Asus does not lack the spirit or ability to innovate. Indeed, our ZenFone 3 still cuts a fine figure with its glass front and back and runs Android Oreo very smoothly, one of the reasons why we called it one of the best sub-Rs 12,000 devices around in a recent article. However, the important point to note is that it comes with a less cluttered UI, many of its variants are now out of the market (a search for ZenFone 3 does not yield results that were as confusing as when the device was released in 2016), and significantly, its price has dropped to almost half of what it was launched.

There is a lesson there, somewhere. But, two ZenFone 5’s later, will it be heeded?

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