Over the last week we've read cNet proclaiming that Samsung is riding a runaway train with the new Galaxy S4, we've read Forbes waxing poetic about it as the most innovative thing on the planet, we've even seen a few attempts by various pundits to spin last week's Samsung Radio City Music Hall extravaganza and S4’s coming out party not as the glitzy high school level vaudeville it actually was, but rather as a subtle and sophisticated messaging event.
We've heard tales of Samsung's attempts with the S4 to not only step outside of the shadow of Android (and thus Google), but to actually step over it and remove it (and thus Google) entirely from the discussion. This was all part of the "subtle and sophisticated" messaging. Yes, there is truth to this - the S4 runs the latest version of Jelly Bean, v 4.2.2 but you certainly would not have left the "show" last week thinking that. Samsung certainly didn't make note of it other than as a quick phone spec.
In fact it's true that Samsung didn't do much in the way of showing off the hardware itself - which of course negated the need to speak of Samsung's new "Android" smartphone. There was nothing subtle about it - Samsung has long dreamed of transforming the mobile side of itself into a mobile software powerhouse, something made clear about 18 months ago when the company's CEO proclaimed that software is the only true means for Samsung to achieve strategic and competitive mobile market differentiation and advantage.
And this is what last week was about in showing off the all new "S" software. It goes hand in hand with Samsung's attempt to redefine the S4 - but also all mobile devices from Samsung generally - as your "Life Companion." It's no longer about owning the next cool smartphone; it's now about having transcendent personalized experiences where the software interacts with you or on your behalf to make your life better.
There is as well the new ability to insert your image into photos using the S4's new dual camera capability. And you can do the same with video. Well, our money is on this feature being immediately turned off by most users. And LG announced the same capability ahead of Samsung. And of course there are the new Air Gesture and hand hovering (no touch) capabilities suitable for Jedi knights.
Is all of this a good thing? Ian Fogg, director for mobile and telecommunications research at IHS, has this to say about it: “By describing the Galaxy S4 as a ‘Life Companion’ Samsung is demonstrating awareness of a fundamental truth about the mobile market - Smartphones are all about personal experiences that stay with people throughout the day, not only mobile ones."
Fogg adds, "Making extensive use of Samsung’s technological prowess, the S4 can monitor events in users’ lives—and then react accordingly. From health features to an eye-, gesture- and voice-controlled user interface; to automotive, entertainment and financial characteristics, Samsung has designed the S4 to pervade and enhance every aspect of users’ lives."
On the day it ships the S4 will be sold by 327 operators across 155 countries. That sales channel scope more than anything else will create early sales of significant size. Fogg however believes that, "Combined with a massive worldwide rollout through almost every operator, the lifestyle focus of the S4 will help drive Samsung’s market share sharply in 2013.” IHS suggests that in 2013 Samsung will in fact extend its mobile handset market share lead over its nearest competitor (that would be Apple) by 11 percentage points over 2012.
Samsung will no doubt do so. But we certainly do not believe it will be due to either lifestyle companion features or the S4, but rather to the exploding market for low end smartphones without all the software baggage in tow that will in fact drive it.
A Samsung Ecosystem?
Dare we use the word "ecosystem" with Samsung? It's really unavoidable if Samsung is serious about evolving into a mobile software company. But if Google owns Android, and Google owns Google Play and all those Android apps are primarily only accessible through Google Play (though they don't have to be in the same sense that iOS apps can only be distributed through Apple's App Store), can Samsung evolve its own ecosystem? Well, those S Apps that run on the S4 are Android apps but there is no need to visit Google Play to get them.
And certainly Samsung has the resources to create its own app download environment. Samsung can also fork Android and completely wave Google goodbye - such are the pleasures (and dangers, depending on the perspective) of open software. But perhaps this is where Tizen is likely to come into play. We're no fans of Tizen (or Firefox or Ubuntu) entering the mobile OS arena, but wireless carriers like the idea of alternatives to keep the big players in check and for Samsung it keeps options open on the Android front.
Here's a thought exercise: What might a Samsung smart watch bring to this particular ecosystem game?
Samsung certainly has the financial resources to fork Android and continue to build out Tizen, but does it have the necessary design, user interface and "forward vision" skills - even with its new Silicon Valley design center in hand - to truly create an alternative reality for the mobile world that can become a successful Samsung World ecosystem? Good luck with that!
Will developers write for Tizen? Will developers welcome the notion of dealing with a forked - read that to mean yet another fragmentation nightmare - Samsung Android? What will Samsung bring to Samsung World besides its new collection of - in our opinion mostly gimmicky - Life Companion apps?
IHS notes that Samsung has delivered on several innovations with its software on the S4 to fully leverage the company’s large portfolio of innovative hardware components. One can certainly see this, as our article that reviews IHS's virtual teardown of the S4 makes clear. And let's be clear on another front - there is certainly a lot of "sophisticated" underlying hardware and software technology in the S4.
IHS further notes that, "Despite using Google's open-source Android operating system as a basis, Samsung's smartphones increasingly are becoming vertically integrated in terms of their software, hardware and services. Samsung combines components that it designs and manufactures, along with its optimized version of Android that takes advantage of new sensors and input mechanisms."
That smacks of rudimentary ecosystem to us.
The tradeoff with the S4 and the Life Companion S App explosion however is that the S4 itself has been short changed - there is absolutely nothing innovative about it regardless of its underlying sophistication. It is entirely derivative. The Exynos Octa processor (which will only be available on the HSPA+ version of the device and has now been benchmarked and declared to be the fastest processor now inside of a smartphone) will soon be eclipsed - it is the nature of these beasts, so any near-negligible benefits will be short-lived.
We haven't heard a peep from the media and pundits about the fact that the S4 did not deliver on real eye-based screen navigation (which, as with the dual camera feature, LG announced first and is now possibly about to tangle with Samsung on through a patent infringement lawsuit). And we haven't heard much relative to the fact that there is no wireless charging built in - you need to separately purchase a different back piece and charging pad for the S4 to make that real. In short the S4 is not much more than an incremental technical improvement - a glorified and larger S III - granted, with a far better display.
Finally, we will just mention in passing that attempting to build an ecosystem and delivering alternative operating systems will in all probably lead to major distractions for Samsung on the hardware end of things. At this time next year we'll be seeing a certain "sameness" to that Life Companion and yawning.
Yes, Apple Should be Giddy with Excitement
There is no doubt in anyone's mind that Apple did spend the week worrying about the possibility that Samsung might have had something truly magical up its sleeve. We also have no doubt that as with any major competitor, Apple already had a rather exact knowledge of what Samsung was going to deliver. But there is always that one possibility lurking that there is a hidden magical ace up that sleeve, something one doesn't know about that might truly change the innovation game.
For the record, we are in the camp that suggests that Paul Schiller should not have suddenly made a defensive media appearance last Wednesday to cast dispersions on Android or devices that use it. Nor did Apple do itself any favor by defensively touting the iPhone 5 with a rather dull and unimaginative marketing pitch the morning following the S4 event. These were unworthy actions.
Nevertheless, trust us on this - by the time the S4 event ended Apple was breathing a huge sigh of relief as they clearly dodged a possible bullet (that turned out to be nothing more than a squirt of water from a water pistol). There was no innovation game changer - Samsung truly blew its moment to truly move the innovation goal posts, and well, if we were Apple "thrilled" is the only word that comes to mind as to how we'd be feeling.
A week after the S4 unveiling (well, almost a week) Apple now knows what its target is - even though Samsung stuck that "Episode 1" tag on the event, Apple now has a clear field to move the innovation goal posts from its end. Episode two may prove to be the now fabled Samsung smart watch coupled to S Apps and the derivative S4. Apple would love for Samsung to get that out the door first and leave it to Apple to deliver the smart watch trump card in time for the 2013 holiday season.
The innovation ball is now clearly back in Apple's court and the return has to be nothing short of the most powerful, fast moving Federer (hey, feel free to pick your own top tennis star) topspin forehand imaginable into the deep opposite court - that shot where your opponent gives up and doesn't bother to try and chase down because its…gone.
No pressure Apple! It's innovate for real or die. The time has arrived.
TechZone360 Senior Editor
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