plastic

Choosing a phone is pretty simple if you’re the kind of person who wants the latest & greatest handset and has the budget to pay for it. Even if you’re not sure what platform you want, you’re essentially choosing between a handful of flagship products and are currently likely to walk away with an iPhone 5Samsung S4 or HTC One.

There isn’t too much head-scratching at the bottom end of the market either: buyers there don’t care about the handset, and take whatever freebie their carrier pushes at them.

But the mid-market is where life gets complicated. You care enough about your handset to want something decent, both in specs and design, but you don’t want to take out a mortgage to buy it. It’s this market that is going to get incredibly colorful this fall … 

There’s Apple and its long-rumored plastic iPhone. I’ve speculated before that perhaps the plastic iPhone won’t actually be released in the USA or Europe, but let’s assume it is, and let’s assume the contract-free pricing is somewhere around the $3-400 mark where the smart money seems to be placing it. That’s also a credible prediction for the contract-free price of the Moto X,  which Motorola is thought to be planning to offer in a choice of 25+ color options.

If true, what seems to be emerging for the first time is a distinct mid-market segment. Sure, you can buy the previous generation, or the one before, of what was the flagship product. An iPhone 4S or a Galaxy S3, say. Still perfectly good phones, and in the Android market there are also a bewildering number of options between the carrier-crippled cheapos and the high-end flagships.

But a brand new handset with a big marketing push (perhaps an enormous one in the case of the Moto X) to generate excitement likely has greater mass-market appeal, and perhaps a rainbow-like array of colors will prove a clear and effective way to signal the middle-ground: a handset that offers a decent spec, is free from carrier junkware and is available at a price appealing to those who can’t or won’t fork out the big bucks for the flagship products. That kind of splash may also be the way to catch the eye of those who still haven’t yet switched to a smartphone.

We also shouldn’t forget the fashion factor. While those of us who frequent sites like this one tend to be as interested in what’s inside the phone as its casing, to mass-market buyers a smartphone is a fashion accessory as much as it is a tool. If bright colors are seen as the in-thing in phones, that alone gives them significant appeal.

There’s an obvious risk to a mid-market offering, of course, especially in a difficult economy. Manufacturers have to hope that its premium customers will always want the best, and won’t be tempted to downgrade next time they buy.

But there’s also a huge potential upside: if you can win over those who currently shop more towards the budget end of the market, and can persuade them that a fashionable design and decent spec is worth paying a little extra for, there’s a lot of money to be made. Especially in developing countries where the real growth is going to be found.

The IDC recently forecast that 60 percent of the billion shipments expected in 2014 will be to BRIC countries - Brazil, Russia, India and China. Flagship handsets will always be a stretch when average salaries are so much lower than in the USA and Europe, but the emerging middle classes make a prime target for a mid-market product that can make itself really stand out.

Given not everyone out there is a techy who knows their processor from their LTE chip, colorful casings may well be the way to attract that attention.