Samsung dropped a ton of features on us at the NYC launch event for the stateside arrival of the Galaxy S III. That’s no surprise: the SGS3 is packing some of the most innovative -along with some of the most gimmicky- innovations seen in mobile in the past year. It’s US variant is no different, bringing offerings like Smart Stay, Buddy Photo Share, and yes, S Voice to we Americans one carrier at a time.
Those features are part of the custom TouchWiz 5 experience Samsung has crafted for the Galaxy S III; they function independently of other products and work right out of the box. But there are a handful of features Samsung is pushing that work differently. Not only do these features require the presence of another phone; they demand that the other phone also be a Galaxy S III. They’re like those opportunistic semi-friends you had in high school; the ones who will agree to hang out, but only if a certain set of other friends will be there.
Well, maybe that’s a little harsh. Let’s call them out by name, so everyone’s aware of who’s gossiping about who: I’m referring mostly to two features, called S Beam and Share Shot. For those of you who don’t own a Galaxy S III, or those who do and haven’t read the manual, here’s a little primer on both.
So here’s the story on S Beam. Remember Touch To Share on webOS? Of course you don’t; it never officially made it to market. Well, the deal with Touch To Share was this: if you had two webOS products, like an HP TouchPad and an HP Pre 3, you could swap information between them by tapping them together. At its announcement, the feature was able to pass URLs back and forth, which was actually pretty handy (I used it on my TouchPad and a post-firesale Pre3). You could start reading a webpage on your TouchPad, then if you had to run out, you could tap your Pre3 to the TouchPad’s home button, and the same webpage would open up on your phone so you could pick up where you left off. Alternately, if you were using your phone to peruse your favorite website in the cab ride home, you could go the other way. You could walk through your front door, tap your phone to your tablet, and by the time you’d taken off your coat and sat down, the content had been passed to the larger screen. It was unique and cool, but the problem was that it was somewhat limited: you could only pass URLs. Also, it used proprietary technology instead of NFC, so there was no hope of expanding it beyond hardware that HP didn’t specifically approve.
With S Beam, Samsung has solved the first problem, but (probably intentionally) not the second. S Beam allows the transmission to another phone of web pages, as well as video, pictures, music, and more. As its welcome screen states, “the app [that's open at the moment] determines what gets beamed.” Instead of the TTS coils in those old webOS products, Samsung uses standard protocols to provide this functionality: the devices’ NFC hardware initiates the connection, and the data is passed via WiFi Direct. All you need to do is put the transmitting phone back to back with the receiving one, tap the content you want to share, and the swap takes place.
The catch: the receiving phone must also be a Galaxy S III.
In keeping with Samsung’s many-faceted branding strategy, this feature packs an alliterative s-heavy name. Like S Beam, it’s a pretty cool feature: in the words of the Galaxy S III reviewer guide, Share Shot lets you “automatically share photos with other Galaxy S III users. Connect with your friends’ devices at the start of a party, a concert, a football game, etc. As you take photos, Share Shot transmits your photos to up to 5 other devices over a Wi-Fi Direct connection.” Notifications pop up with each photo you receive from other Share Shot, and the photos are saved to a special album in your Gallery. At the NYC launch event, a DLNA-augmented version of this feature was creatively put to use: as photos were snapped with a Galaxy S III near the entrance, the photos were automatically beamed to a large TV across the room.
It doesn’t take an enormous leap of imagination to see why this feature is attractive to the socially-inclined; it makes sharing almost effortless. Most conveniently, it eliminates the irritating fiasco that results from trying to get someone to email you copies of those awesome photos they took. With Share Shot, the minute your friend takes the photo, it’s already in your hand.
… if, that is, you both own a Galaxy S III.
Really, both of these features have a ton of great use cases. The problem is, they also each have a built-in handicap: everyone has to own the same hardware for them to work.
Earlier today, I talked about why everyone carrying the same phone isn’t desirable. At first blush, I’d probably say that Samsung wouldn’t agree: obviously the company wants to see as many people as possible toting their newest flagship smartphone. The kind of exclusivity and lock-in that features like Share Shot and S Beam promote are exactly what drive the growth of ecosystems. Apple wouldn’t be nearly as big today were it not for the integration of iTunes with iPhones, iPads, and iPods. That’s business.
But Samsung isn’t so short-sighted as to confine this stuff to the Galaxy S III forever. As big as it is, its ecosystem is in its infancy; depending on who you ask, some might say it hasn’t even gotten off the ground. So Samsung needs to grow its user base. No matter how many Galaxy S III units it ships, it won’t be that device alone that propels its back-end into relevance. Samsung will need to build this feature set into future NFC- and WiFi-Direct-enabled devices, and it’ll need to port the feature to older devices with capable hardware, to compete on that level.
Some of the Galaxy S III’s features are closer to gimmick status, and some stand on their own as useful and innovative features. The argument could be made that Share Shot and S Beam walk the line between those two extremes. I know I’d use them with more people if I could. But with the landscape as it stands now, the only people I can use them with are other Galaxy S III owners. It’s the classic early-adopter problem; the question is how long it will last, and how long it’ll take competitors to answer with their own ecosystem-boosting social features.
Until then, I’ll be over here, not-sharing media between my SGS3 and my Galaxy Nexus LTE. Don’t mind me.