Smartphone makers are banking on less being more

Crafting and selling a smartphone is hard. Crafting and selling a smartphone while legions of titans and upstart ankle biters do the same? Well, that's just infinitely harder. You'd think it would be the newcomers struggling the most as they try to carve out their niche in a too-crowded market, but these days, it's often the big guys, the juggernauts that need the most help finding their footing. Just take a look at the news: Representatives for both Sony and Samsung recently said their respective companies would be slashing the number of smartphone models they churn out, all in hopes that more sweet, sweet cash will eventually fall into their laps.

On the surface, it's a smart move. More wood behind fewer arrows certainly seems like a big plus for product quality, distribution and marketing -- all the crucial little bits that factor into a phone's success. Here's the thing, though: This plan is far, far from new. Other smartphone makers have been trying it out for years, and unfortunately for Sony and Samsung, it's definitely not a shortcut to success.

Take HTC for instance, a company whose own shotgun approach was phased out at least partially because Samsung was just better at it. After a spell of churning out new smartphones at what felt like machine-gun pace in 2010 and 2011 -- to considerable success, mind you -- the Taiwanese company decided to stop, take a deep breath and refocus its efforts on a smaller number of "hero" devices instead. That was the original One family, which eventually begat the incredibly handsome HTC One M7 and M8, not to mention a small handful of size variants like the HTC One minis and the pocket-busting One max. Just about every one of those devices received their share of critical acclaim, but that wasn't enough to stop the company's US market share from tanking, nor did it prevent HTC from posting the first of many quarterly losses starting in 2013. Has it made progress since then? You bet it has. Has it been enough to put HTC exactly where it wants to be?

Definitely not.

Motorola found itself in a similar position, despite going big on Android early and cementing the word "Droid" as a catchall for whatever shiny, new Android phone was plopped onto a store shelf. Those earlier Droids (especially the hulk that was the Droid X) did well, but a series of pricey, uninteresting phones soon followed and pressure from market giants like Apple and Samsung led Motorola into a spiral of near-complete irrelevance. Then Google bought it and everything changed. The first things to go? All those extraneous phones that didn't matter. Motorola VP of Product Management Lior Ron said in the summer of 2013 that the company's raison d'etre was to make "very few" exceptional devices, and it wasn't long before the Moto family made its debut with the original Moto X, followed by the cost-conscious Moto G and E. I'd argue that Motorola managed the transition from broad to narrow much better than HTC has, but the new Lenovo subsidiary doesn't have its Taiwanese rival completely beat -- it's only slightly ahead of HTC in US market share right now.

So here we are, years later, watching two prominent smartphone giants contemplating a page from a well-worn playbook, while two others are still trying to prove the play works. And once all those companies have completed their switch to more focused product lines? You can bet competition will just heat up all over again. Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr couldn't have known that we'd all be walking around with computers in our pockets, but he's still (always) right: The more things change, the more they stay the same.