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The battle between Samsung and Apple in the smartphone market is now being fought in emoji form after the South Korean company unveiled a function in its new smartphone that creates a small cartoon version of the user.

Samsung has launched the new iterations of its Galaxy smartphone brand — the S9 and S9 Plus — at Mobile World Congress, the world’s largest trade show, in Barcelona.

The new handsets show only incremental improvements on the previous models in a further sign that driving innovation in the design of a mainstream smartphone has proved difficult.

The smartphone also contains a function that personalises the emoji from the phone by creating a cartoon 3D version of the user. “5bn emojis are sent daily but they all look the same,” said David Lowes, chief marketing officer for Samsung Europe.

The move is a riposte to Apple’s ‘Animoji’, built into the iPhone X, that enables a user’s expressions to be superimposed on to animated emoji such as an animal or a robot to message other users. “Why be a unicorn when you can be you?,” asked Mr Lowes.

The launch comes against a backdrop of the first ever decline in smartphone sales after Gartner, the research company, reported a 5.6 per cent drop in the fourth quarter of 2017. Samsung remains the largest smartphone supplier with an 18.2 per cent market share in the last quarter of 2017 but its sales shrunk by 2.7m from a year earlier as sales of its S8 range started to slow.

Mr Lowes said that the S9 was more a case of “continuous improvement” rather than a radical redesign of its model but believes that the high-priced phones will appeal to millions of consumers looking to upgrade. “There has been a lot of talk about market maturity and saturation but there is growth to be found at the premium end,” he said.

Ben Wood, an analyst with CCS Insight, argued that the model offers only incremental advances on the previous models but should sell well as an upgrade model. “The S9 underlines the dilemma all leading smartphone makers are facing. Innovation in smartphones has plateaued and now it is all about marginal gains be that screen technology, camera features and processing power,” he said.

Samsung has promised to “reimagine” the camera with the S9 by improving its capability to capture images in lowlight. It has also included a function to capture slow-motion images that can then be turned into GIFS. Sony launched a similar function on its Xperia models last year.

The company said that 1.2tn images were captured on smartphones in 2017 and 1bn GIFS are sent every day.

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