With Galaxy S4, Samsung shapes a true flagship

With Galaxy S4, Samsung shapes a true flagship

Summary: For Google Android devices, it was always a race to see which model would take pole position. Now the choice is clear.

TOPICS: Mobility, Samsung

This may be hard for a ZDNet reader to imagine, but most of the world does not own a smartphone.

Of those people who do, most did not recognize the device's name before purchasing it. They tapped and swiped and looked at the price and made a decision from the gut.

We can discuss technical specifications, features, shipping dates and price all day long, but an important component of the success of Samsung's new flagship mobile device -- the Galaxy S4 phone -- is that it is the definitive flagship. It is difficult not to understate the importance of this in a world where the phone store resembles the toothpaste aisle of a pharmacy: too many options from which to choose, with analysis paralysis to quickly follow.

For years, the Google bid to steal Apple's mobile supremacy was stymied by its own competing hardware partners. Content with shipping numerous models with slightly different specifications, the Motorolas, HTCs, LGs and Samsungs of the world flooded the market. Though Google's operating system now enjoys the most adoption in the market as a result, it is still very much a fragmented existence, on both the software and hardware fronts -- leaving the consumer to wonder: if I want an iPhone that's not an iPhone, which one is the best?

This is a question that I and many of my colleagues have been entertaining from friends and others for the last few years. The answer changes: sometimes it's a "Droid" of some kind, for a time it was an "Evo" or a "Nexus," lately it's been a "Galaxy." Either way, it's not apparent at the store.

The upside to Google's multi-partner approach? It's a brute force attack. The downside? Consumers are left dazed and confused. Because the alternative is always, simply, "the new iPhone."

Every vendor wants its device to be a flagship, but in the fickle world of phones (where devices are replaced every couple of quarters), few manufacturers have the confidence to stick to a long-term plan and a clear value proposition: HTC curiously offers multiple devices named the "One"; LG has a rather forgettable "Optimus" line; Motorola has the "Droid Razr Maxx HD," which makes me want to sock its marketing department in the jaw. Et cetera.

Samsung has been making devices under the Galaxy name since 2009. While it continues to complicate this messaging at the lower end of its portfolio ("Beam," "Stellar," "Appeal," spew), it has reserved the "S" for its flagship device since 2010. Four major models later, it's finally gaining traction in the global marketplace.

No wonder there was such hullabaloo around its press conference in New York City last night. The company is, in many ways, reaching a real milestone, not just one according to its communication team: it's finally being seen as the yin to Apple's yang, much to the chagrin of Cupertino and the other Android-based manufacturers.

Part of its success in doing so? Offering a clear, consistent model at the top of its portfolio.

For years, we in the technology press have been watching the mobile market to see who would mount a strong bid against Apple, which gained the upper hand early and defended it well. We're starting to see Samsung do the same with the Galaxy S -- not just in unifying its supply chain, but in its marketing efforts, too. The latter isn't alone sufficient for success -- just ask Microsoft, per the Surface -- but as each subsequent generation arrives to market, it's easier for the average consumer to have a glimmer of recognition upon gazing at a sea of glassy black rectangles. (Even if Google takes issue with it.)

For most buyers of a device, the specifications don't matter. The silly (and apparently sexist) press conference doesn't matter, either. All that matters is that Samsung offers a competitive option with a recognizable name -- for when people visit the store to choose a new phone, and for when they must recall it to recommend to a friend. ("The new Samsung Galaxy S.") Consumers aren't stupid, but few have the patience to engage in the research necessary to tell devices apart.

"My contract is almost up. Which phone should I get?"

"The Droid something-or-other."

The concept seems simple enough, but continuity in presentation is still lacking. Most people don't want a Droid or a Galaxy or a One, at least not at first. They just want "the best one," or "the cheapest one," or one that's somewhere in the middle. They need phone-makers to make that choice clear for them; to edit their offerings enough to be distinguishable. 

With the Galaxy S, it looks like Samsung is beginning to enjoy the benefits of this approach, at least in the premium part of its mobile device portfolio. Here's hoping it doesn't lose focus.

Topics: Mobility, Samsung

Andrew Nusca

About Andrew Nusca

Andrew Nusca is a former writer-editor for ZDNet and contributor to CNET. During his tenure, he was the editor of SmartPlanet, ZDNet's sister site about innovation.

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  • Re: if I want an iPhone that's not an iPhone

    If this is the question, then anything fits. Or, you get an iPhone.

    Samsung would have "succeeded" when the question becomes: if I want an Galaxy that is not an Galaxy...

    Whatever we say here about flagship this and that, truth remains that the normal user just does not care. They usually get whatever phone is offered cheap by their carrier, which is not the Galaxy.
    • The normal user wants it cheap.

      The normal user wants it quality-made.

      The best way to appease the normal user is to sell it cheap, or with a veneer of "quality-made" and charge more money to bolster the psychological manipulation of said customer.
      • Ill skip the GS4, thous sales will show the true results.

        I am NOT going to recommend it to anyone.

        Samsung produces sub par products. The quality of it is not good. You are always better off with any other device.

        The catch for them, is they have a few features that are wow factor for some. But its just a bait to catch you into their system.

        I like Android OS. Samsung without Android does not interest me and most people. This is the reason Samsung Windows phones have and will be a huge fail. Samsung should pay close attention to that fact.

        The GS4 lacks a lot of Android features and fills them with subpar alternatives. Android Beam works. Samsung Beam is USELESS. The same goes for their maping service. And other "offerings" . The more these offerings creep up, the less I like Samsung.
        • IMO

          Couldn't disagree more. I've had the Samsung Omnia HD, Galaxy S1 and currently the S3. In addition to a Samsung monitor and 2 Samsung TVs. All great build quality and not had any issues with the phones. Samsung even sorted an out of warranty repair for one of my TVs.
          IMO better than HTC like for like. Perhaps I am a Samsung fanboi.
          • Nice vote of confidence

            @haggis75 - so you blew through 3 phones (in under 4 years, given te Omnia was only released in 2009), and one of 2 TVs had a defect, and you're still claiming that Samsung's quality is good??

            The fact is Samsung's actual build quality is HORRIBLE. Their products feel good and perform well for a short period, but then quickly begin to fall apart. The fit and finish looks great in the store, but then it becomes obvious once you get it home and use the product for a while, you discover that it was all a rouse. I am NOT saying that HTC is all that much better. But BOTH could definitely be a lot better than they are.

            I would have no qualms paying for an expensive smartphone, regardless of whether it had the latest greatest features, if I felt that the product was going to last (the way a product SHOULD last) for longer than 6 months to a year.

            And far from the presumption put forth in this article, the "choice" is FAR from clear. I don't think the fact that the Galaxy has had four iterations, now, holds any bearing on whether people will buy it over anything else on the market. In fact, top factors in people's decision as to what phone to buy will typically come down to "what phones does my carrier support", and "do they have any in stock" (since 9 times out of 10, a customer wants to walk out of the store with phone in hand).
          • Apple LAGship phone

            iphones lag so far behind in features that they should no longer be regarded as a flagship phone but relegated to 2nd tier smartphone.
          • @warboat...

            Do you buy a phone for the features you might use?

            I guess in your world, you don't buy it for its primary function. But heaven help anyone who gets a phone based on features and then finds it lets them down when making calls.

            All hell breaks loose...
    • Stuck in "i"?

      I ( like a lot of folks ) want a phone that works for me.
      It is no longer an iphone or .... It is what phone fits me?
      There are still a number (decreasing) that are stuck in the "i" vs. Android vs. BB vs. Win when they look to a smartphone. But that clique is slowly but surely shrinking.

      Yes, it is a result of the Galaxy / Droid / Nexus / BB / iphone world.
    • You should stick to philosophy...

      ...because your analysis of markets just....sucks. The fact is that Samsung has outsold the iPhone with the Galaxy phones. That one statement outshines any of your silly "a phone that isn't a phone" philosophical babble.

      "They usually get whatever phone is offered cheap by their carrier, which is not the Galaxy". Obviously this sentence is completely untrue. (1) The phones have outsold iPhones. (2) Every major carrier sells these phones. (3) The new S4 is debuting with 4 major carriers in the US. (4) Everyone and every tech website has been eagerly awaiting the news of this new phone.

      Any one of these statements (1-4) would have put serious holes in your assertion. Now go out and prove me wrong on any one of them. Find me the sales data, the websites ignoring the coverage of its release, or how the lack of sales from US carriers. Apparently, endusers, carriers, and techies are all very much sold on the Galaxy phones. In record numbers, no less.

      Which makes your comments an obvious attempt at trolling.
      • @rocko6r...

        So says the voice of wisdom????

        Intersting that you spout off much drivel and nonsense, as a commenter and not the author.

        I think you should be aware of the old statement, 'You have two eyes, two ears, but only one mouth...'

        In other words - don't give up your day job.
    • The stetement is true

      I remember, the first mobile operator in our country is called Mobitel. The nema quickly became synonim for mobile phones, so ti was a question, whether you have or have not a "mobitel". At first, it was NMT and later GSM followed, also other operators followed, but synonim for mobile telephone stays "mobitel".
      For smartphones, something very similar happened - iPhone was the first and most recognized smartphone, so the question, which iPhone to buy but thet it is not the iPhone, is very real. Who wants to bother with "mobile smartphone from vendor..." ?
      in our country the synonim became so classic, that often you hear, that one has "mobitel" from Vodaphone or similar...
  • Its a brick

    I don't want a brick!
    • That's no brick... it's awsome

      would like to see a house made with bricks that thin! Samsung totally Rock. IN the UK, they are free on a 24 month contract. My daughters all wanted iPhones at £100 each. When will people wake up and correlate massive apple cash reserves with overpriced hardware. I am an S3 owner and have loved it for nearly a year now.
      • @tim@...

        Guess your daughters like the iPhone then. Is there a problem with that???

        Maybe you should buy them each an S4 and be done with it. Maybe, instead of giving Apple your money, you can feed the big Samsung monster instead. I'm sure they don't make healthy profits, probably making a serious loss.
    • the brick

      is lighter than an iphone4 brick and only 18g more than iphone5.
  • Kudos to Samsung

    Kudos for creating such a great phone. With amazing companies like Nokia and Samsung, we are very lucky as consumers to have such good products on the market. Also good to see that HTC might be getting their mojo back.

    No one else seems to be making good mobile phones.
    • Not impressed by Sony?

      I think their doing a good job at beginning to turn things around. They're very much on my to watch list.
      • *correction*


        I don't usually bother to correct posts as there is no edit, but that one is a pet peeve!

        But yeah, I think they may have a few too many competing low end models, but they do seem to be learning their lessons... It's just a shame it's taken them too fall so low to learn them. My brother in law got a miro for a hundred and twenty pounds, I was really surprised at what you now get at that price.
    • Too bad

      It beats the iPhone experience in size only. Will Samsung never innovate anything?
      • Better than iphone in every way that counts

        "Will Samsung never innovate anything?"

        No. Samsung will not never innovate anything.

        Will apple ever innovate anything? They haven't up until now. Maybe the iphone 6 will be innovative? You just have to wait until 2014. Perhaps 2015. 2016 at the latest. iphone innovation: brought to you by the word "wait".