Galaxy S4 evolutionary, not revolutionary; features introduced seem gimmicky rather than game changers
Device makers face the law of diminishing returns; next innovation frontier is software content, services
Periscope by Edwin Yapp
THE world’s most awaited smartphone this year so far – Samsung’s Galaxy S4 – arrived with much pomp and fanfare last Thursday night in New York (Friday morning Malaysian time).
Anticipation was at fever pitch, with the media, including a myriad of bloggers, speculating as to what the Suwon, Korea-based tech giant was going to bring to the game.
This was especially so since Samsung had chosen to launch the fourth iteration of its flagship smartphone at Radio City Music Hall. For the record, the previous Samsung Galaxy S3 was launched in London last year, while the S2 was launched in Barcelona at the 2011 Mobile World Congress.
The S4 launch on Apple's turf, widely regarded as Samsung’s stiffest competitor, was audacious to say the least. The company may have the overall lead in terms of global smartphone market share, but in the United States it trails Apple’s iPhone, whose market share stands at about 35% compared with about 18% for Samsung, according to various industry analysts’ reports.
But industry observers did note that Samsung’s choice to launch the S4 in the United States shows its confidence that it has finally arrived as a credible challenger to Apple in its home market, and that a sustained marketing blitz in the coming months would help it gain on Apple before the Cupertino, California-based behemoth refreshes its iPhone 5 sometime in the middle of the year.
From a specification perspective, most tech and smartphone enthusiasts would already know all the particulars, so I won’t bore you with the details. For a great comparison chart showing the difference between the S4 and its major competitors, check out CNET here.
For me, the launch of Samsung’s S4 has bigger implications beyond better user features, better screens, faster processors and more memory power.
Two questions linger in my mind. The first is what broader implications the arrival of the S4 has for the smartphone market, in particular for Apple, while the second is what the next frontier is for smartphone makers.
Most pundits and industry analysts agree that the S4 is evolutionary rather than revolutionary.
Jan Dawson, chief telecom analyst at Ovum, puts it well when he notes that the Galaxy S4 is a worthy successor to earlier members of this line, and will doubtless sell well.
In a press statement, Dawson said the improvements in features are good steps in this direction, but they can be seen as gimmicks rather than game changers.
“At this point, Samsung appears to be trying to kill the competition with sheer volume of new features – there should be something here for everyone… Overall, there are lots of features, but based on past experience most people will never even find them on the device.”
For now, Dawson says Samsung can likely rely on its vastly superior marketing budget and the relatively weak efforts of its competitors in software to keep it ahead. But competitors will catch up, as Samsung has caught up in many ways with Apple, and Samsung will need to continue to stretch.
I wholeheartedly agree with Dawson that as far as features go, the new ones will be nice to play with, but only for a while, as once people get used to them, the new features aren’t going to be part of most users’ staple usage.
The more important question facing Samsung would be how it moves beyond just giving piecemeal features towards really finding a service or a piece of innovation that will endear more fence-sitting users – or even Apple users – to switch over so that it may capture a greater share of the market, especially in the United States.
Colin Gillis, technology analyst at BGC Partners, sums it up well and notes that if Samsung is really going to beat Apple at its own game, it would need to keep innovating.
“Generating buzz is a great thing to do provided your products are worthy of it,” he told The Guardian in an interview. "This market is exploding. They will sell 10 million of these things out of the gate. But it's not a one-player market; they will have to really deliver."
This leads to the second question of how companies like Samsung will continue to drive innovation forward, given that the industry is at the threshold of plateauing out as far as the hardware specifications are concerned.
Looking at the power of these devices, Samsung’s super large active matrix organic LED (AMOLED) screens and increase of pixel per inch density, and its 8-core processors, how much can Samsung push the envelope any further before it encounters the law of diminishing returns?
Ovum’s Dawson says that Samsung, having innovated rapidly over the last several years to vault itself into top spot in the world smartphone rankings, now faces essentially the same question that faces Apple: How to continue to improve its devices year on year when existing phones are already top of their class, and there aren't any obvious shortcomings?
As these smartphones reach a point when they become so powerful, what else is there for these hardware makers to do?
My view is that simply making smartphones even more powerful wouldn’t necessarily increase their market share.
For further innovation to happen, companies like Apple and Samsung would need to go beyond merely increasing hardware prowess, but innovate with software, content and services.
They would need to find the secret sauce, studying what people want to do with their smartphones, how they gain further productivity, how to squeeze more fun out of them.
Samsung, I believe, would also need to control its ecosystem better, given that unlike Apple, it doesn’t have full control over its operating system as it is dependent heavily on Google (with its Android operating system) as its partner.
There is also the ongoing issue of how Samsung handles major software updates, given the fact that these operating system updates always come later than what is available to Google-branded phones directly.
This is due to the fact that it would need to customize its software before users can update their phones, something that is often a pain for most users to go through and certainly not something Apple users experience.
On top of that, Gartner consumer devices analyst Carolina Milanesi says that the market is at a point where the majority of sales in this segment come from replacements, not new users, which means that the addressable market is starting to be saturated and it is now about keeping their refresh cycles short.
“The problem is, though, that technology innovation is slowing down and as we move to more innovation being delivered via software, the cycles are getting longer rather than shorter,” she told The Guardian.
Ovum's Dawson adds, “Samsung also needs to build a stronger set of content offerings that crosses its various platforms, so that it can extend its leadership in smartphones into the tablet space, and give consumers a reason to buy into an 'all-Samsung' experience with their consumer electronics."
For me, this will be the next frontier in the smartphone challenge, and it’s a battle that Apple, Google, Samsung and the rest have to fight out sooner rather than later.
As Apple takes center stage, iPhone 5 is evolutionary, not revolutionary
Pricier iPad Mini gives rivals a lifeline: Analysts
Samsung at CES: Diversification the key to growth
Among non-English speakers, Samsung edges out Apple
Battle of the mobile tech giants
For more technology news and the latest updates, follow @dnewsasia on Twitter or Like us on Facebook.