Has Samsung become the new Apple, and should we be scared?
Last week, I wrote a reaction piece to Samsung’s announcement of its fifth-generation Galaxy S smartphone. I, like many of you, were unimpressed with Samsung’s latest and greatest, so I called it “more of the same.”
A quick stroll through the comments of that piece will uncover a great divide. Some people love it, others hate it. And there’s nothing wrong with that. Differing opinions are a great thing that forces companies to diversify and push forward.
By all means, Samsung has diversified. It has created a globally recognized brand with a visually unique design language that has inspired a handful copycats.
In more recent years, however, Samsung has taken a different turn – a turn towards the painfully mundane everywhere but the sales floor. The Galaxy S 4 from 2013 was packed to the brim with features that wowed during the sales pitch but had few – if any – practical, real world use. Smart Stay, Smart Rotate, Air Gesture, and the like were filled with bugs and hardly worked as well in real life as they did in a sterile, controlled sales floor showcase.
The strong emphasis from Samsung on software and the way it breezed over specifications to focus on how the Galaxy S 4 would be your so-called “Life Companion” alluded that the South Korean handset maker had undergone a mental context switch. Its primary, shiny plastic-clad smartphone lineup was no longer pushing the industry forward. Samsung no longer held the reigns which controlled the direction of the Android space like it had in past years.
The Galaxy S 5, instead of the groundbreaking superphone we expected it to be, was more likened to what many are calling a Galaxy S 4S, a marginal upgrade over last year’s Galaxy S 4. And for what it’s worth, it is.
The SoC was bumped to a Snapdragon 800 chip which, depending on your market, isn’t exactly new. It ships with the same RAM as before, a slightly larger and higher-res camera, slightly larger 1080p display, and a battery with an additional 200mAh. The casing looks very familiar, though the backside is no longer coated in a hyperglaze finish, but is now a perforated, leather-like plastic cover that we figure must be an acquired visual taste.
Save for the oddly placed and gimmicky heart rate sensor, the wonky fingerprint scanner, and IP57 dust and water resistance, it brings nothing new to the table. Don’t get me wrong, these features will be helpful to someone, but they are not the shock and awe, boundary breaking features we once expected out of Samsung.
Most of the improvements on the Galaxy S 5 are software-based. The visual aspect of TouchWiz has been given a minor, conflicted face-lift; the settings menu has been rearranged and given a very Tizen-esque appearance; and it has a new camera viewfinder interface.
It doesn’t take a lot of effort to parallel this with one of the market’s most notorious manufacturers for marginal hardware upgrades and air-filled software features.
Apple has been doing this since the middle of 2010, when it announced the iPhone 4. Jumping all the way up to the iPhone 5S from the iPhone 4 isn’t a drastically different experience – the CPU is 300MHz faster with an additional core, it has double the RAM, it has a larger, higher-res camera sensor, and a
larger taller display with the same pixel density.
It’s a little gauche and cliché to say Samsung has gone the way of Apple. But it’s difficult to deny that the sort of hardware upgrades Samsung has served – in its flagship lineup, no less – are minor, comfortable changes. And the software enhancements are, more or less, mundane and predictable.
Let me be clear: specifications are not the be-all and end-all. But Samsung use to stoke the fire and push the industry forward. The Galaxy S 5 is a lateral move from the one Android manufacturer who is in a place to innovate circles around the competition.
None of this is to say Samsung is falling off the map anytime soon. It’s still leading the pack in terms of financials, profits, units moved, etc. The Galaxy S 5 will fly off shelves. Mark my word.
The significance of this context change, however, cannot go unsaid. It can mean one of two things. Either the mobile industry itself is slowing down, at least in terms of progress and advancement of individual technologies – the inevitable plateau we knew we’d hit someday when specification improvements are so marginal, they become negligible. Or Samsung is getting complacent.
The former is something we’ve rapidly been approaching for the last two years, but we aren’t there … yet. Battery technology, image sensing, GPUs, and displays are far from perfect. I’m forced to believe, at least to some degree, it’s the latter – that Samsung feels the strong global recognition of its Galaxy S brand alone is enough to carry it through 2014. That, or the company has a few tricks left up its sleeve. Some conspiracies seem to suggest Samsung is using the Galaxy S 5 to lull its competitors into a sense of security, only to launch a much more impressive Galaxy smartphone in the summer months.
It would, after all, make for a great story. But it’s exactly that: a story. And we’re not holding our breath for Samsung to break from its conventional naming or launch plans for the Galaxy S lineup – its main bread winner.
It’s as if Samsung took a page from Apple’s playbook, a “just enough” approach to its latest-gen Galaxy S. And while it may be enough to carry the company into 2015 without too much trouble, it alone – or even paired with Samsung’s wearables – won’t be enough to hold the hard hitting competition forever.
HTC, ZTE, Huawei, Motorola, Sony, and practically all other Android OEMs are scrapping for sales to turn the first profit in more quarters than they can count on one hand. The minute Samsung thinks “just enough” is enough is when we can hope for another OEM to capitalize on the opportunity and turn the market on its head.
What say you, folks? Is Samsung getting complacent? Or do you believe the Galaxy S 5 brings enough value to justify the marginal upgrades? Sound off with your thoughts below!