Samsung's Galaxy S4 focuses on differentiation but reveals growing problem for handset makers

Samsung's Galaxy S4 focuses on differentiation but reveals growing problem for handset makers

Summary: It's official, Samsung's Galaxy S4 has been announced, but does the high profile announcement also reveal a growing problem of differentiation for handset makers?

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TOPICS: Samsung, Smartphones
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The launch of the Samsung Galaxy S4 in New York on Thursday represented the South Korean manufacturer’s most concerted push to secure a number one spot in the hands and pockets of both consumer and enterprise buyers but it could also spell growing problems for manufacturers.

Samsung_Galaxy_S4
JK Shin, head of Samsung Mobile, introducing the Samsung Galaxy S4

A premium, established brand like Samsung's 'hero' Galaxy devices will invariably deliver a premium experience over a more modestly specced handset, and the S4 is expected to be no different.

Alongside its incremental bump in screen size to 5-inches, which puts it right on the edge of the phone category, and a jump to a 1080P display resolution, there are more significant improvements to the camera and processor.

Instead of the 1.4GHz quad-core processor in the S3, there is now either an octo-core clocked at 1.6GHz or a quad-core 1.9GHz depending on market variations. The camera is a 13-megapixel affair and can record simultaneously in conjunction with the front-facing 2-megapixel sensor.

On the design front, the S4 has stayed true to previous generations of Samsung's Galaxy and Note ranges. While Galaxy fans will likely be happy that the S4 has taken design cues from the S3, it could begin to wear thin if Samsung doesn't break the mould eventually.

While this could seem of little concern at the launch of another flagship handset and new addition to Samsung's stables, the overall design choices taken for the S4 could illustrate a growing trend, and growing problem, for smartphone makers. And this is where Samsung has focused.

With increasing handset size, the possibility of one-handed use and the line between what defines a tablet or a phone (or even a phablet) becomes narrower, making it harder for manufacturers to stand out on hardware alone in an already crowded marketplace.

"Going over 5-inches in an elegant way gets harder, and you have a compromised experience [as a phone] as the device goes from one hand to two hand-operation," Carolina Milanesi, research vice president of Consumer Technologies and Markets, told ZDNet.

"The bigger question is what are vendors are to do when they cannot go any larger, as this trend started more as a way to differentiate than as a real need from consumers," Milanesi added.

Samsung is as aware of this as its rivals and, like others, looks to differentiate through the software it adds to Android, and the S4 is no different.

Where the S3 introduced Smart Stay, the S4 brings with it Smart Pause, Smart Scroll and Air View. The first two of these use eye detection to perform an action, specifically, pause a video or scroll up or down a web page, while Air View allows you to preview content, navigate the phone or browse the web by hovering a finger over the screen, but not touching it.

There are also new native apps like S Translator for translating different spoken languages on the fly and S Voice Drive for use when driving.

Innovation or gimmicks?

However, Samsung can introduce all the software features it wants, if they don't work reliably they will ultimately fade into obscurity.

"Samsung’s latest eye tracking feature will go a long way to establishing Samsung's image as a serious software player, however, like all innovation, it will be interesting to watch the consumer response," Fred Huet, managing partner of Greenwich Consulting, said in a statement.

"The Smart Stay feature on the Galaxy S3 received a mixed response largely due to its inconsistent performance and feature limitations. The expected software upgrade certainly holds much promise but in order to really benefit the user it must consistently aid the smartphone experience, or else risk becoming an expensive gimmick," he added.

Grand ambitions

While wooing consumers' minds with features such as these is obviously high on the S4's priorities, Samsung also recently unveiled grand enterprise ambitions for the S4 and other Galaxy devices with the introduction of its Knox device management software.

With BlackBerry and Apple's iPhone winning and increasing amount of enterprise customers, Samsung's Knox is clearly serious about getting Android devices into businesses.

While in one sense the S4 is just another high profile handset launch, it also more importantly represents a dual-pronged assault on the consumer and enterprise markets that could well concern its rivals, particularly other Android handset makers.

But while Samsung continues to evolve its devices and its business to maximise every opportunity and efficiency, it must also be careful not to play the iteration game too long, or bank on being able to continually increase the screen size or resolution. A range-topping smartphone must be a phone, not a phablet. Ideally it should also fit in a pocket, a point not overlooked by Milanesi.

"Communication has changed and voice today is only one of the ways we communicate, so the phone as a communication device had to evolve too," she told ZDNet. "However, the pocketability of the phone remains a key to the experience we have with the device."

Topics: Samsung, Smartphones

Ben Woods

About Ben Woods

With several years' experience covering everything in the world of telecoms and mobility, Ben's your man if it involves a smartphone, tablet, laptop, or any other piece of tech small enough to carry around with you.

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27 comments
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  • Is this the part where Motorolas value goes to zero?

    That $13.5B investment isnt looking so good right now.
    Johnny Vegas
    • I think part of that investment was for the patent portfolio

      Hard to say, but pre-purchase the impression was that Google was a sitting duck in the mobile technology patent wars and had to make the purchase to fend off Apple and others. So, if that is the case, the investment may still look very good indeed, regardless of what Samsung is able to accomplish.
      tr7oy
    • Screen size

      I think the S3 had about the right screen size and with the US economy in the state it is, shouldn't US Citizens be buying home grown products such as Apple and Motorola.
      marcandsebe
      • Apple and Motorola

        Their phones are made in Asia. Apple profits are kept overseas to avoid paying taxes in the US. I see no benifit in favoring a company that goes out of their way to not be a part of the (we)
        lbshultz
      • Apple - U.S. Corporation? Hah!

        Apple is owned by its stockholders, some of whom are in the US, but anyone anywhere can buy Apple stock. Profits, if ever distributed in a decent percentage, go to stockholders. Workers who make them are in China. Certainly Apple has its core business in the US, but more US workers are employed buying a Korean car made in the US than an "American" phone made in sweat shops in China. Plus Apple, like most big US corporations, keeps its profits hidden overseas so as to avoid taxes on them. Now these big corps want a tax holiday -- they want to be able to bring back the billions and billions they have stashed overseas without having to pay any taxes - and a bunch of politicians are willing to let that happen.
        bigsteve666
    • Not Really

      If you look at GOOG's strategy the past few years everything they have done is defensive in nature to preserve their search engine. Android operating system was conceived because GOOG was afraid MSFT or AAPL would eventually take over mobile and shut out their OS. GOOG never really took Android that seriously, hence the ridiculous names: Froyo, Gingerbread, Cupcake, (and whatever dessert comes to mind) and it's the reason they gave it away for free.

      The purchase of Motorola further boosts their defensive strategy (along with a huge patent portfolio) because GOOG can, at their whim, make their own handsets and further control their own destiny.

      The reason Mozilla Firefox is still around is because Google is giving them millions. Why? Because the default search engine is Google and will be for the forseeable future, even though they have their own web browser now (which again, helps to preserve their search engine). It's all about their search engine and they will do whatever it takes to support that.
      Maha888
    • Johnny Vegas

      That $13.5B investment is looking very very good; how you say?.

      1. Motorola is keeping MS and Apple tied up in court over patents it owes.
      ( Only thing saving them is the courts in their home states)

      -http://www.digitaltrends.com/mobile/motorola-v-microsoft-judge-recommends-banning-xbox-360-in-u-s/

      --http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/technology-20594775

      2.Companies are thinking twice before they are coming after Android like they did prior to the patents.

      So yea, it's working very well; if we can get these Pay-off/Anti-capitalism Judges to do their jobs!.
      Marty K
    • Re: That $13.5B investment isnt looking so good right now.

      At close to a million dollars per patent, it might yet pay off as a savvy insurance policy.

      Well, you don't think Google bought Motorola as a going concern, did you?
      ldo17
  • 5"

    Do you think the aftermarket will focus on skinning it in silicone or will be testing the market with a man purse? I gave up cargo pockets years ago.
    CanadianTrooper
    • Samsung probably did their market research...

      ...with kangaroos.
      Userama
    • 5"

      It's the same dimensions as the Galaxy S3 (except slimmer) just a bigger screen.
      Dave Heller
    • Exactly.

      When it takes real effort to squeeze a phone into my front pocket, I pick a different phone.

      Personally, I'm looking forward to clam shell two display phones where one display can be used as a keyboard when needed and as a second app display when not needed. A little thicker, I can handle, but a paperback sized phone is a bit much.
      BillDem
  • Why is the S4 a 5" screen?

    And the Apple iPhone 5 a 4" screen? It makes no sense what so ever in both cases.
    Oknarf
    • Odd coincedences...

      of smartphone generations and screen sizes not progressing together. The S3 was just under 5 already. The only thing I dislike is they just had to go that extra bit to a full five inches when it really wasn't needed. Ticked off because I'm just 6 months in on a 2 year contract, one that I began with the S3. lol
      archienj7@...
      • Your 2 year contract

        I'm sure your S3 will be fine for the next 2 years and you must have known that Samsung bring out a new phone every year. You could of waited for the S4 launch, but they don't want you to do that. They want you to desire it so much, that you have to have it right there and then. I still have a phone that does everything I want it to do. It makes calls, it's texts, it emails, it can translate, it takes decent pictures, it does Facebook and Twitter. It almost does everything any other smartphone will do. I wasn't suckered in to buying the latest phone, I'm not on a 2 year contract. I'm on an unlimited monthly sim only plan and I don't care if people call me a fan because it does all I ask of it and more. It's an iPhone 4S.
        marcandsebe
  • It's pretty...

    big! It's just about as big as JK Shin's head.
    CowLauncher
  • There Is More Innovation To Come

    Look at the Yotaphone and the NEC Medias W for two possible directions for the next step. Can't keep making screens bigger? How about two screens?

    Only Android makes it possible.
    ldo17
  • Enough?

    To me this looks like just a small incremental hardware release, like Samsung flagship phones generally are. There are very few meaningful software features and usually Samsung software stuff is bad and unpolished, and very slowly fixed. If there were not so huge third party developer armies behind these phones, they would be nothing special. Even the design is the same (as bad as it was).

    So long I waited for this device but what a waste...
    Asgardi
    • Really?

      So you think Samsung design is bad, software bad & unpolished and flagship phones only get small incremental hardware releases but... you actually Waiting for this device. Are you really being honest?
      thekman58
  • Just gonna throw this out there...

    I pretty much never just use one hand for my phone, and I haven't since the move away from flip phones.

    My first 'smart' phone had a physical keyboard- two hands for everything but dialing.

    My first touch screen phone was an iPhone 3G, and it was most typically held in one hand and manipulated with the other.

    Why base phone design around what is likely a subset of a usage pattern?
    bergmann620