Examining The Galaxy S III’s “Back End”
Manufacturers are forever in search of new ways to encourage you to lock yourself in to their ecosystems. Google and Apple already do this to great effect with Android and iOS; Gmail, Drive, Calendar, Maps and other features make a compelling case for a heavy Google user to stick with an Android device, while iTunes, iMessage, iCloud and the rest of Apple’s massive (i)nfrastructure encourage iPhone owners to remain iPhone owners.
Part and parcel of the ecosystem approach is the notion of a back-end, or a web-management portal where a device (or device family) can be remotely tended to. Particularly in an environment like Android’s, where customers can jump from handset to handset at will and loyalty to one OEM is largely a mythical concept, manufacturers seek to create a bond that will forever link a user to their product. Samsung, then, doesn’t just want to step back and let Google provide all the server-side management for your Galaxy S III; if it did that, it might as well ship a bunch of unbranded devices running stock Android. No, Samsung is interested in selling its Android phones as “Samsung phones,” with a “Samsung experience,” full of Samsung-provided features that you won’t just use, but which will stop you from jumping to a competitor’s phone in the future. “That HTC One X doesn’t have Smart Stay,” it hopes you’ll say; “No way am I ditching my Samsung.”
In keeping with this quest for lock-in, Samsung built its own back-end management site for users of Galaxy S devices, creatively dubbing it the “Samsung account.” I took note of this when performing the initial setup for my Galaxy S III, but brushed it aside, annoyed at the hiccup in my process in the same way I would be if dealing with bloatware. I wanted to get to my Google account login; that was useful. My Google login was the key to downloading all of my apps and contacts, not this janky Samsung nonsense.
A few days later, though, I decided to poke around in my Samsung Account and see just what value -if any- the service added to my experience.
Logging in to my Samsung account for the first time was a confusing exercise. The precise steps for reaching the web login page are probably mentioned somewhere in the manual, but as we’ve discussed before, no one reads those anymore. So I took the Google approach and punched in “Samsung login.” That’s not the way to go, of course; turns out Samsung has a separate account system where you can register your purchases, contact customer service, and accrue “points” in a strange Samsung-centric online gaming community. Eventually, I realized I wasn’t where I was supposed to be. I hopped into the Accounts and Sync section of my Galaxy S III’s settings menu, found my Samsung account in the list, and tried accessing my account settings from there. Despite my entering the correct password, that didn’t work out too well …
… but the password-recovery screen did give me a usable URL, which I entered into my desktop’s browser to get myself to the right place. Save yourself some trouble and bookmark it: account.samsung.com is the path to success (the link’s down at the bottom of this article, for you clipboard-a-phobics).
Having finally arrived at the right place, I was confronted with a rather Spartan interface, with a lot of white space and recurring iconography that was somehow comforting in its simplicity. I was actually impressed at how simple it all looked.
Of course, that wasn’t to last. I started clicking around to see how much I could accomplish. The first thing I noticed was that I hadn’t been syncing my on-device information with my Samsung account, probably on account of hurriedly rushing past that portion of the setup process. I hopped back into my SGS3 and checked everything there was to check in the Sync Settings menu for the Samsung account. I also selected “Device Backup,” and set it to automatically perform that backup once a day when connected to a WiFi network. A dialog informed me it would back up my SMS and MMS messages, logs, and settings. I was fine with that, so I hit OK.
I hopped back to the Samsung account management site in my browser. None of my backed-up data appeared, even though the phone was done passing data, so I concluded that stuff wasn’t accessible via the web interface; maybe it just lived in the cloud, ready to pop back down to the phone on a Restore command. Returning to the list, I took a top-down approach to examining the included features (spoiler alert: I skipped a few).
Find My Mobile (Samsung Dive)
Though I’ve never been the victim of a phone-jacking, I’ve always been interested in remote-tracking of my own devices. After all, there’s a lot of personal information stored in mobile phones these days, and the ability to remotely track or kill a mobile device if it’s lost or stolen is a comforting feature. So Find My Mobile is the first link I clicked on.
I was instantly reminded of how much Samsung likes to brand things, as I was taken to a new tab that promptly loaded up the website “samsungdive.com.” With but one option on the splash screen, I was forced to “dive in.” I clicked the signpost, was prompted to enter my Samsung Account credentials again, and then I was taken to the Samsung Dive control panel.
I found a lot to like. Feature after feature was listed, including Track My Mobile, Lock My Mobile, Ring My Mobile, Call/Message Forwarding, Wipe My Mobile, and others. It was a treasure trove of options; the perfect suite of controls for remotely manipulating my device.
Unfortunately, my first experiment with remotely controlling my device fell flat on its face. Telling the webpage to “ring my mobile” resulted in a lot of crawling dots on the progress bar … and not much else. I waited about five minutes. The phone never rang, and the progress bar never stopped moving. Then I caught sight of a small disclaimer down at the bottom of the screen: “The requested function may take a long time or may fail depending on the network environment and the mobile state. Please check this page again later, if you can’t see the result.”
Not able to “see the result,” I opted to see if I could track my phone’s location. I clicked, said yes to the authorization request, and waited. And waited. And waited some more.
Tired of waiting for that after a few minutes, I hopped over to Call Logs to see if I could retrieve those. The phone displayed a notification indicating that the logs had been requested – the first indication I had that any of this remote-access stuff was working – but the “success!” mark was never attained, and the logs never arrived.
I toggled WiFi on and off and tested the device’s 3G connection; all seemed to be working fine. The device just didn’t want to give up the info to its web-based parent. I realize that network conditions arise which prevent services from working properly all the time, and the Samsung Dive FAQ is loaded with qualifiers. But this is a feature Samsung is holding out as a security and usability enhancement. Given its current performance, I wouldn’t trust it to safeguard my stolen phone. Even if it decides to start working tomorrow or the next day, this initial encounter has shaken my faith in the feature. That’s the problem with security apps; it only takes one failure to break the trust bond.
Miffed by my bad luck with Samsung Dive, I decided to see what “Family Story” was all about. The website described it as a service that would let me “Share photos, events and messages with friends.” That sounded like fun. The icon was a fairly nondescript green house inside of a word bubble. Not terribly engaging, but at least not offensive. I clicked the link and got the expected redirect to www.familystory.com. Samsung really loves its custom URLs. Just as I was anticipating a fun new (hopefully working) service, though, my bad luck streak reasserted itself:
Deciding to give Samsung the benefit of the doubt, I hopped on over to Firefox and tried it there. Fortunately, it loaded fine in that browser, and after logging in with my Samsung Account credentials, I was brought to a setup screen and prompted to update my profile. When I tried doing so, the resulting page failed to load properly.
Impatient, and more annoyed than before, I skipped the rest of the setup process and tried learning more about the service. Beside a welcoming-looking link was the helpful teaser, “You can use Family Story from your Samsung smartphone, tablet and SMART TV as well as your computer. You can recall your precious memories anywhere and anytime.” That sounded like a good time, so I clicked on it.
Maybe Tuesday is maintenance day. I dunno. At this point, I just wanted a win, so I skipped to the bottom of the list, to the most interesting-looking link on the page.
Of all these features, Music Hub was the most exciting to me – if the most familiar. It’s basically Samsung’s answer to Google Music, Pandora, and iTunes all in one, promising a “music hub” for uploading your collection, a catalog of “over 19 million” tracks available for purchase, and customized recommendations to help you find new music. It’s also being touted as exclusive to the Galaxy S III, with customized settings “designed to prolong battery life,” and “high-quality audio and smooth streaming even under spotty network coverage.” That all sounded pretty good. Maybe a Samsung-provided app, optimized for this specific device, could indeed provide a better listening experience than something more mainstream, designed for many devices, like Pandora or Spotify or — aw what?
“Premium,” huh? That didn’t sound too promising. I hopped onto my phone, logged in with my Samsung Account for what felt like the fiftieth time today, downloaded Music Hub, and froze, staring. Then I cried a little.
I’ve never been happier to write “in conclusion.” Some of the trials this experiment has put me through weren’t Samsung’s fault; I could have done a bit more research before trying out this suite of applications before launching headlong into them. The Galaxy S III hasn’t yet seen its official American launch, so I shouldn’t expect some of this stuff to work; I realize that. This wasn’t a review; it was an experiment.
I guess I just didn’t expect every feature I tried to fail. Samsung is offering a wonderful array of options and features with its Samsung Account. A lot of this stuff is pure bloat, sure, but a lot more of it -security features in particular- could be really useful … if it worked.
We plan to revisit some of these features in future pieces -I skipped ChatOn and AllShare Play for a reason- and when we do, maybe after the SGS3 sees its official U.S. launch, I’ll also revisit my Samsung Account to see if I can get my phone to ring remotely, or track it on a map, or recall my precious memories anywhere and anytime.
Until then, though, I think I’ll stay far, far away from any of those custom Samsung URLs.
If you’ve had better luck than I have with Samsung Account, on the SGS3 or on other devices, let us know in the comments below.
Samsung Account login link here