This is the first in a continuing series of articles on controversial or disputed topics in mobile technology. We’re calling it the “Brutally Honest Question Corner.”
The leaks have transitioned from a few drips to a sizable deluge: the release of the latest in Samsung’s popular Galaxy S line, one of the most anticipated Android smartphones ever, seems to be just over the horizon. On the eve of this product launch, Samsung seems to be directing more and more resources to strengthening its branding efforts. And I’ve never been less interested.
Like a lot of gadget lovers, I was first introduced to the world of mobile technology by my first cell phone. In my case, it was a Samsung device: the SCH-3500 on Sprint, to be specific, and I loved it. As the years passed and I upgraded to newer devices (at a rate that was already alarmingly frequent in 2002), I tried products from a wide range of manufacturers, but I always preferred Samsung.
Before people cared much about things like GUI design on mobiles, the South Korean giant was offering intuitive, visual interfaces that were fun to use. They led the charge on attractive hardware design when the flip-phone revolution caught on, eliminating unsightly screw-holes and replacing the tired old green backlight with the more attractive blue LEDs of the future. They were among the first in the US to offer camera options on their phones, and they weren’t afraid to take chances with their form factors, either. Anyone remember the A600, or the A940/A970?
Is it a phone or a camera? It’s A940 from Samsung.
In wasn’t until just before the sun set on the boom days of the dumbphone that my enthusiasm for Samsung started to fluctuate. Motorola’s RAZR was the first real blockbuster of the cellphone world, but its initial Cingular exclusivity in the States made life difficult for other carriers. Samsung rushed to the rescue with a specced-out competitor catchily dubbed the “Blade.” Sprint called it the A900. Though it was superior to the RAZR in almost every measurable way, it was hard to deny that its design was very, very similar. I loved my A900, but explaining to laymen than “no, it’s not a RAZR – it’s better” got tiresome.
Keep your eyes on your own paper, class.
About a year later, I’d moved on to a smartphone as my daily driver. The WM5-powered Motorola Q was aggressively-styled, sleek, and slim at just over 11mm thick. It featured a handy jog dial in addition to its 4-way D-pad, a 320×240 display, a 1.3MP camera, SD card slot
Wait which one am I is this the mirror universe?
Anyway. Hey, remember when the original iPhone launched and buttonless screens became you know what? Just Here’s the Samsung Instinct.
Now, look, all companies do this. As I mentioned in an earlier article, Sanyo created an even more shameless RAZR clone when that kind of thing was in vogue. By the time Samsung released the BlackJack, everyone was competing against then-goliath RIM’s Blackberry, so they were all designing for the same screen-and-keyboard paradigm. Even companies like Nokia were among those building similar hardware. But you’d be hard-pressed to convince anyone that the E61 looked as much like the Motorola Q as the BlackJack did. And though it was just one of many iPhone clones, the Instinct was definitely the most transparent of the bunch for a while there.
So, Samsung’s always been a fan of throwing heaping piles of spaghetti against the wall to see what sticks, and that hasn’t changed. Reference the Galaxy Beam shown off at this year’s MWC, or basically the entire Galaxy Note lineup. Throwing a mediocre projector into an ugly smartphone or resurrecting an outdated input technology in an improved form is vintage Samsung. They’re also still not shy about drawing heavy inspiration from the designs of others. So why is this less acceptable to me today? What’s different about Samsung now? Three things.
Their ambitions. Samsung’s marketing head Younghee Lee recently said, “Especially in U.S., people are obsessed with Apple It’s time to change people’s attention.” One need only look at the recent patent and advertising war between the two giants to confirm it: Samsung covets Apple’s leading mindshare position in that special way that only a second-place contender can. They’ve got their eye on the prize, and they’re fighting for it.
Their competition. Whereas before, competing with the RAZR meant building a better dumbphone in a thinner casing, effectively battling the iPhone/iPad goliath is an entirely different exercise. Amazing hardware, stable and capable software, and a vibrant, healthy ecosystem are equally important. All of those elements need to be present in abundance, and they need to be backed up by effective marketing. Which brings us to …
Their own products. When was the last time a Samsung phone or tablet was truly inspiring? I like my Galaxy Nexus’ design, but it never filled me with the unique “I gotta have this” desire in the days leading up to its release. The second-most-exciting thing about it at launch was Ice Cream Sandwich; the most exciting thing was that it wasn’t tainted by Samsung’s TouchWiz skin. Maybe the styluses on the Galaxy Note lineup are useful to you, and they’re certainly different, but they’re a fad, not a revolutionary improvement. Android is a useful and popular OS, but does anyone really believe that grafting TouchWiz onto Honeycomb and throwing it on an iPad clone is compelling or exciting? There’s a reason Samsung’s tablet business is being soundly whipped by Apple on their own turf: They’re using yesterday’s tactics in today’s competitive landscape.
We got out-Samsung’ed.
Speaking of tactics. Everyone’s talked about these ads already; depending on which side of the fence you fall on, they’re either hilarious or pathetic. They’ve definitely captured a fair amount of attention, so they’re doing their job, but what’s important to me is what they reveal about Samsung’s awareness of its own brand reception. In one of the videos, the initial resistance among the (let’s not dance around it) Apple fans to Samsung products is palpable. “I could never get a Samsung,” says one guy. Sure, he’s unconsciously setting himself up for a super-humiliating barista joke, but his reaction is shared by the crowd. It’s a fairly realistic moment in a commercial filled with exaggeration: Samsung’s products aren’t reviled, necessarily, but they’re certainly seen by most as inferior to Apple’s.
What Samsung seems to be saying with these ads -indeed, what they flat-out proclaim in one of them- is that their phones are “amazing.” That’s subjective, of course, but the implication is that they’re more amazing than Apple’s products, and you just don’t know because you’ve never tried Samsung out. In this fantasy world, people turn their heads at a Galaxy S II, lavishing it with praise from afar.
That’s an okay direction for an ad to take, and it’s executed brilliantly in this latest round of commercials. But none of it is inspiring. None of it is aspirational. It’s just a catty call-out of a rival, in the form of a spot that makes fun of their customers. These spots say “our product is better, but you don’t know it because you’re a snob.” Even if that were true, it would still be a snotty commercial; the problem is, it’s not true. Apple’s user satisfaction topped the charts last quarter. Surprised? It turns out things like bigger screens and 4G speeds, while they do matter, tend to matter less to the average consumer than to the geek squad. Who knew?
Nobody cares ’bout your fancy-talk Gorilla-Glass quad-core hootenanny fiddle-fum.
Know who else is putting out ads like this? Windows Phone. Know why I don’t have a problem with it? Because while it only makes up a tiny fraction of the market, Windows Phone is also topping some charts in customer satisfaction. It’s doing something legitimately different, and it’s loaded with potential. Meanwhile, Samsung barely has any skin in the WP7 game. Instead, they’re pushing TouchWiz on Android, running on uninspired, derivative hardware, and calling it better. Again: very few people in the real world care about “quad-core,” “4G,” “AMOLED,” or any of the other buzzwords bandied about in the blogosphere. They care about a truly great end-to-end user experience, which Samsung has yet to provide. Truth be told, even Apple has yet to provide that but they’re far closer to that goal than most companies, and they’re much better at convincing everyone that they’ve already accomplished it.
Back when phones had extendable antennas and internal memory measured in kilobytes, I used to defend Samsung against attack in discussion forums late into the night. They were the first mobile technology brand I truly identified with, and their early products brought me years of satisfaction. I continue to have tremendous respect for them. They’re still doing incredibly well, and they’re still making good products. But they seem to be focused more and more on Apple knock-offs, and less and less on the innovative, funky, useful designs that used to define them. I want to see them return to those roots. Samsung has the potential to one day earn the Apple-like following they covet, but to do so, they need to divert their energy from making smarmy commercials to making truly great products again.