Samsung has long been the king of Android.
Its Galaxy S smartphone has far outsold any of its competitors’ Android handsets by the millions, quarter after quarter, year after year. It’s aided in pushing mobile hardware and Android as a platform forward, and has even attempted to fork the Android ecosystem by instilling its own ecosystem within Android, selling movies, music, and other digital content through its own store.
Samsung has, for the better part of its smartphone career, largely steered the direction of smartphones and led the industry. That is, until recently.
Over the last two years, Samsung has slowly shifted to a backseat position in the industry. Its market share and revenues literally shadow all other Android OEMs, but instead of breaking through boundaries and advancing in leaps and bounds, Samsung has slowed to a much more practical pace, releasing iterative – not revolutionary – upgrades to its hardware.
The Galaxy S4 was, after all, just a minor step up from the previous year’s Galaxy S III handset. The display grew, from 4.8- to 5-inches, the resolution was doubled (from 720p to 1080p), RAM was also doubled, it got a newer CPU with a faster clock speed, and a higher-resolution camera. Aesthetically, the radius of the corners was reduced and the physical footprint was actually smaller, thinner, and lighter.
From the Galaxy S4 to Galaxy S5, the changes were even more minor. The resolution stayed the same at 1080p but the display grew from 5.0- to 5.1-inches; RAM and storage space stayed the same, though external storage support was bumped to 128GB; the camera resolution was increased from 13- to 16-megapixiels; the Snapdragon 600 SoC was swapped for a Snapdragon 801; and the battery was bumped by a whopping 200mAh. The biggest additions to the hardware are two sensors: a heart rate sensor and fingerprint scanner.
As far as design goes, the Galaxy S4 and S5 look even more alike. The only visual differences are, again, slightly sharper edges and corners and the design and finish of the back of the Galaxy S5, which many have likened to a perforated leather glove or … a bandaid.
The oversized Galaxy Note series has become Samsung’s little experiment series, getting the most notable and drastic changes, upgrades, and design improvements. But even the Galaxy Note 3 was an evolutionary update to the Note II.
It’s not that Samsung’s smartphones are bad – quite the contrary. The high end models, at least, are exceptional, and unlike last year, the Galaxy S5 and the new TouchWiz aren’t nearly as susceptible to lag and other performance hiccups. Samsung has slowly been refining its devices and improving its software. At the same time, however, Samsung has fallen into the safe zone trap. It’s devices are a touch on the sterile, boring side, and the latest earnings report corroborates those sentiments.
Last week, Samsung posted its quarter results. Its profits for Q2 of this year were $6.1 billion, down from $6.96 billion the same quarter last year. As our own Jaime Rivera notes, that’s Samsung’s lowest quarterly profit in two years.
It blames the low profits on the global slump in smartphone sales and extra spending on marketing, and we wouldn’t be surprised if demand for the Galaxy S5 isn’t meeting Samsung’s expectations. It noted it expects the second half of 2014 to be a challenge as the competition heats up and, more specifically, the newer, larger iPhone hits shelves.
Granted, the Galaxy Note 4 is expected to be a whopper of a smartphone, believed to be packing some killer specifications and, of course, a giant display and the famed S Pen. But the Galaxy Note handset series alone can’t stave the waning profits or trouble that’s brewing for Samsung. It’s problems are only beginning because it appears to be realizing how unmoving and mundane its staple smartphone line actually is.
The question is, has Samsung hit its pinnacle? Is it on the inevitable path downwards?
If not, the South Korean manufacturer is in dire need of updating its product lineup for 2015, bringing forward a new, compelling design, a lighter bit of software, or maybe some competitively-priced hardware. Not to mention, it’s diluting its product lineup with same-but-different devices, like the seemingly pointless Galaxy S5 Active and Galaxy S5 Sport.
While Samsung was busy repackaging practically the same phone over and over and creating no less than a dozen different models of smartphones every year, competitor HTC has been building fewer, nicer smartphones with true selling points, like BoomSound and a unique and classy design. LG has been busy mastering the super-premium handset we’ve all been longing for. Oppo has been stepping up its game, building two impressive handsets. OnePlus was busy turning the market on its head with a flagship killer (availability issues aside) for half the price of Samsung’s. And Motorola has been showing everyone how a smartphone doesn’t have to be over the top to be a solid offer or wildly intriguing.
Samsung has been caught up on meaningless details for the last two years. Not a single thing about the Galaxy S4 or S5 made me want either phone. And at the end of every review period and each subsequent stint with a fourth- or fifth-generation Galaxy S smartphone, I couldn’t wait to put my personal SIM back in something more daring, exciting, pretty, fun, or innovative.
Again, Samsung’s smartphones aren’t terrible. I don’t have the same distaste for the Galaxy Note series. But after reviewing the One M8, G3, Find 7a, and the Galaxy S5, it’s clear Samsung has been playing it entirely too safe for the last few years. The cautious route has worked exceptionally well for one other company, but even Apple is apparently changing its tune this year with two larger versions of its still-popular iPhone.
It took a while to catch up to Samsung, and if it doesn’t start taking its competition seriously and begin shelling out compelling and truly inspiring hardware (and software, for that matter), Samsung could soon find itself going the way of BlackBerry – not totally away, but losing almost everything in a slow, painful way.