With Galaxy S4, Samsung shapes a true flagship

For Google Android devices, it was always a race to see which model would take pole position. Now the choice is clear.
Written by Andrew Nusca, Contributor

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.

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