Will Galaxy S7 keep Samsung in pole position?

Samsung is still gripping hard to the top of the mobile market, but it's under fire. Can the Galaxy S7 hold the lead? ZDNet's lead editors in the US, Europe, and APAC discuss the S7 and Samsung's future.
Image: Samsung

ZDNet's lead editors across the globe got together for a Slack chat to mull over the new Samsung Galaxy S7 that's being released next week, as well as what it means for Sammy's place in the mobile industry.

Jason Hiner

Jason Hiner

Jason Hiner: We've reached that time of year where Mobile World Congress is about to be headlined by the newest Samsung flagship phone, in this case the Galaxy S7. Although it's still the leading Android manufacturer in both sales and profits, Samsung is under intense pressure--especially from the Chinese phone makers. What does it need to do to keep the Galaxy S7 at the head of a crowded pack of Android phones?


Steve Ranger

Steve Ranger: So this is really a question about perception - which manufacturer can really claim to have the best Android phone. That's getting a lot harder now as you've got some real challengers out there now. In fact the competition at the high end in Android is as tough as it's ever been. Now I still think that the Galaxy S series is looked upon as the flagship Android -- feel free to disagree -- but there are plenty of new contenders too.

Steve Ranger: There's some stuff that's likely to be packed into the S7 - waterproofing or removal storage - that will appeal. But frankly the differences between the high end handsets themselves is getting smaller and smaller.


Larry Dignan

Larry Dignan: I agree that there are a ton of options out there, but the one thing Samsung can do is provide little innovations that matter and cater to its base better. For instance, bring back the SD card option. Overall, I think Samsung has balanced its inclination to bloat down Android with providing a good experience. It remains to be seen if the low end of the Android market converges with the high end.


Chris Duckett

Chris Duckett: Completely agree on the convergence of high-end and low-end phones. We are in a strange place where the size of a phone is linked to its feature set for no reason other than that's how vendors want it. The "Compact" phones of today are the oversized flagships of yesterday, and curved screens as a differentiator should be a sign that Samsung's bag of tricks isn't as full as it once was.

Jason Hiner: Among professionals and executives, do we still see most of them carrying Samsung phones (for those who prefer Android)? Is it the brand of choice for those who think about features and style more than price?

Steve Ranger: It's certainly the handset I get asked about the most - usually by people trying to decide between that an iPhone. So I guess that tells you where it sits in the consumer mind.

Jason Hiner: Frankly, in the US, I still see most executives--maybe 9 out of 10, anecdotally--opting for iPhones. What's it like in Europe, Steve, and in APAC, Chris?

Steve Ranger: Anecdotally I'd say that I see more of a spread. One thing I have noticed is the Edge was the model that created the most excitement this time around and that's somewhere that Samsung has a chance to push itself ahead of the competition. Anything that pushes smartphone design forward is a good thing.

Chris Duckett: In Australia, iPhone rules the roost, especially among those on higher incomes. When I see folks carrying two phones, it's usually because the enterprise has mandated a Samsung, and the user prefers the iPhone.

Steve Ranger: I think Samsung maybe more than Apple has the opportunity to experiment a bit here and to find a way of getting past the black slab smartphone look which frankly I'm pretty bored of.

Larry Dignan: Samsung is the de facto Android choice in the enterprise and Knox only helps that case. Samsung's B2B unit also helps. The reality is that Apple is the market share leader in the enterprise and when it comes to phone is akin to what Windows is on the desktop. Samsung with Android can make a case though based on the ability to customize Android apps.

Chris Duckett: For better or worse, Samsung and Knox are supported by any MDM solution worth its salt, and no other Android vendor is making the B2B noise that Samsung does,

Jason Hiner: Do we think Samsung will keep the split between the Edge and the standard design in the S7, or could the Edge become the standard?

Steve Ranger: I think the way they've got the two models is smart - the mainstream model and the slightly -- ahem -- edgier model. So I can't see the Edge becoming the standard model just yet.

Larry Dignan: I could see the Edge being the standard, but it makes sense to have both. The Edge could be a standard if there was anything beyond a cool hardware design to it. The apps that take advantage of that screen real estate are few and far between. For my purposes, I'm a Samsung Note person. In that way, the Edge and S7 are a bit of an interesting side show.

Chris Duckett: Other phone makers now have curved displays as standard, why not just bite the bullet and make it standard for Samsung too? They can always still make cheaper black slabs in their A-range of device.

Steve Ranger: The thing that most worries me when I buy a new smartphone is what happens when I drop it. The single thing that any manufacturer could do to make buying a new phone more attractive would be to make it harder to break. Making some kind of protective case all but mandatory seems a very odd way of doing things. Although obviously I could just not drop it in the first place.

Jason Hiner: Yeah, that's what worried me the most about the Edge. There's a lot of glass exposed that makes it very susceptible to a screen break when it falls out of your hand. Beyond that, both the Samsung S6 and S6 Edge and the iPhone 6 Plus models were very slippery. It's easy to lose hold of them. I'd like to see the phone makers build some tactile-ness into the designs so that these devices are easier to grip.

Chris Duckett: Other vendors aren't going to let what is left of Motorola have the " shatterproof screen" for too long.

Larry Dignan: On the tactile front the biggest issue is that these devices are huge compared to predecessors. I don't know how you get around that short of having larger consumer hands.

Jason Hiner: We'll certainly see better cameras, as always, in the Samsung models. They already do a good job there--arguably Samsung and Apple do the best on hardware-software integration in the cameras--but what else could Samsung do feature-wise to give their devices a step forward? Is there anything, or have these devices become that incrementally boring?

Steve Ranger: There's a lot of people working in R&D at Samsung (and Apple, and Huawei and everywhere else) asking just that question. What to cram in there next? There's so much inside good smartphone that never gets used already. It's like it's turning into a PC - huge computing power that nobody ever uses, except to check their email. Or in the case of smartphones, to play games and take selfies.

Chris Duckett: If the rumours are true that the S7 will pack a much bigger battery than previous models, then hopefully that means Samsung are done with the chase for thinness. Camera bumps are a blight, and show that vendors only care about being able to quote "xx millimetre" thickness rather than thinking about the whole.

Larry Dignan: End of the day, I think the camera carries it. Whatever Samsung can do to push cameras forward on a phone will pay off. I'm with Steve though I think we're at a hardware and software plateau. I've called it the service pack era of smartphones.

Steve Ranger: So for me it's all about the ecosystem - having a phone that works better with the rest of my world. Like using it for payments, or to open the door to my office. But that's quite a hard sell.

Jason Hiner: What effect will the S7 have on Samsung's business? It's under a lot of sales pressure from the Chinese brands, especially Huawei and Xiaomi, which are stealing its thunder in the massive and quickly growing Asian market. What's that mean for the future of the company?(edited)

Larry Dignan: Samsung is expected to be led by its semiconductor unit in the years ahead, but the face of the brand is the smartphone (probably even more so than TVs). Samsung can't have a dud. I see the Huawei and Xiaomi threat (and don't forget Lenovo), but I'm not sure those upstart rivals can scale. Xiaomi is already slipping. Lenovo a contender though, but we'll see.

Steve Ranger: I think it's massively important to hold onto that perception in the market that the S7 is the flagship Android. So much else flows from that.

Chris Duckett: Samsung's earnings have plummeted in recent years due to the loss of sales in the lower end. In everything that Samsung does, it is a volume player that survives on thin margins. Make no mistake though, if the S7 bombs, it is going to hurt, but even if it tops what the S5 and S6 did in shipments, it cannot make up for the widespread damage and sales lost to Chinese counterparts.

Jason Hiner: If you look at almost all of the leading phones on the market, including the iPhone, Samsung still makes a bunch of the parts. It's winning on the backend. It still needs the front end because of there are better margins there, from a business perspective, but the larger company is a freight train that isn't slowing down.

Jason Hiner: How about Samsung in the enterprise? KNOX is a technology that enables workers to essentially sandbox their personal apps so that they don't mix with business apps and data. Does the enterprise trust Samsung devices and how are they doing in lucrative corporate deployments?

Steve Ranger: I think they are beginning to. Android security has grown up a lot in the last couple of years, especially when you can add third party tools on top like KNOX. Not everyone wants to have an iPhone after all, so there's plenty of companies looking around for another option. And Android is so pervasive it's an inevitable choice.

Larry Dignan: Samsung is making nice enterprise moves and I think will emerge as a trusted vendor. Corporate deployments have been typically through the channel. Samsung's mission will be to tie custom apps to the back end systems and then show the integration with smart signage and other parts. Whether it's Samsung, Apple or Microsoft I think the days of one vendor being deployed are over. In mobility, I don't think folks want one vendor to choke.

Jason Hiner: Okay, one last question. Let's put on our prognosticator caps. Google is taking more and more control over Android, so that it can own the most profitable parts of it and leave the OEMs to battle it out over the low-margin hardware business (just like Microsoft did with Windows PCs a generation ago). Samsung will certainly stick with Android for the S7, but could the Galaxy S8 run on Samsung's own Tizen instead?(edited)

Steve Ranger: Short answer is no. Too complicated, too much too change. Long term its a bigger question. I reckon the vast majority of Android owners have no interest in the operating system at all so long as they can get the apps they need. So like everything else it comes down to getting the devs on board with a new operating system which is tough - just ask Microsoft. That's why Samsung might have more luck building out the ecosystem with things like mobile payments but it remains a steep climb.

Jason Hiner: I think, at some point, the Galaxy brand becomes Tizen-powered. It makes more sense than trying to spin up another flagship brand--which is a long slog. But even then, I do think Samsung will still make Android phones as well. It's a company that likes to throw a lot of different SKUs at the market.

Larry Dignan: If you could develop Tizen and use the Android apps perhaps it could work. I've had the pure Android experience before and frankly was disappointed with stability, crashes and other headaches. I could see where a Samsung overlay would work. But it's a long-term play and you need an ecosystem. The real swing factor will be how much pain Samsung feels as Google takes more control of Android. For instance, does Samsung really have the motivation to push Tizen over Android. Do buyers care? I don't know just yet.

Chris Duckett: Samsung would absolutely love to move to Tizen, but reality keeps getting in the way. Android is the only open solution for an app ecosystem that phone makers can use. And no-one has ever made an Android compatibility layer work properly and seemlessly (if you ever tried Android apps on a BlackBerry 10 device, you'll know that pain well). No-one talks about making Tizen apps, and why would they? It's an OS that does everything from TVs to watches and doesn't have much utility or market share in either. If Microsoft with all its resources and install base couldn't make Windows Phone a viable mainstream platform, it would take a large amount of hubris for Samsung to think it could have success where Redmond has failed. Google has the Android chicken, and it also has all the eggs.

ZDNet's Monday Morning Opener is our opening salvo for the week in tech. As a global site, this editorial publishes on Monday at 8am AEST in Sydney, Australia, which is 6pm Eastern Time on Sunday in the US. It is written by a member of ZDNet's global editorial board, which is comprised of our lead editors across Asia, Australia, Europe, and the US.

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