Samsung remembers the secret of its success

March 3, 2014
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If you read this site with any regularity, you know that Samsung announced its latest flagship phone at MWC last Monday. The Samsung Galaxy S5 was made official at the company’s Unpacked event which was, in fact, packed to the rafters with tech journalists.

Now that the dust has settled a bit, let’s take a step back and think about what exactly we were presented with last week. Did the biggest smartphone manufacturer in the world blow everyone away with an innovative, paradigm-shifting, must-have device? No. Did they unveil a stinking plastic turd that’s on a par with your Granny’s Jitterbug? No.

Getting back on course?

From the cringing big-budget unveil, to the unpalatably long list of software features, the Galaxy S4 looked like a misstep for Samsung. It may have outsold all the other premium Android smartphones together, but it did not keep pace with the iPhone and it did not hit the targets Samsung was striving for.

That perceived failure led to speculation that the S5 would be pushed out the door early, which is lent some credence by the MWC announcement, though the S5 won’t actually go on sale until April, which isn’t much of a deviation from Samsung’s annual release schedule.

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Is it possible that Samsung had gotten too far ahead of the game with the S3 and it’s not good at being out front? Did it get caught up in its own hype? Did it over-rely on marketing?

The South Korean manufacturer is adept at assessing the best features of current consumer electronics, listening to what consumers want, and wrapping that up in a package that outdoes the competition. It is not, arguably, all that great at divining the next big thing. But it doesn’t really need to be.

Samsung is listening… again

The Galaxy S5 is an incremental improvement to an already winning formula. It addresses the functionality that most consumers care about. It also assimilates a few bits and pieces that have been popping up on other flagships.

An increasingly important factor in choosing a smartphone for most people now is the camera. That’s why we’ve got a 16MP camera with Samsung’s new ISOCELL image sensor and phase-detect auto-focus. The only thing most people need to know is that you can focus and take great shots much faster than before — we’re talking 0.3 seconds — in a wider range of lighting conditions.

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We’ve also got a dust and water resistant device, something that Sony pushed into the realm of standard on a flagship. There’s some effort to tackle everyone’s biggest bugbear, in the shape of a bigger battery and power saving software features. There’s even a fingerprint sensor for secure payments… can’t think where Samsung got that from.

If there was one thing that was obvious at CES this year, it’s that fitness wearables are expected to explode in 2014. It’s no coincidence that the S5 has a heart-rate monitor, with an updated S Health app, alongside a brand new Gear Fit wrist-worn accessory.

This is what Samsung is good at.

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But it’s so ugly

Of course, I know some people will already be screaming at the screen about what Samsung did not listen to. We wanted a new design, not this plastic faux leather golf ball thing, and those big bezels are making me wretch! We wanted a 64-bit octo-core processor! (apparently there will be an octo-core S5 variant by the way). We wanted something truly innovative!

Before you get too upset it’s worth remembering that you don’t have to buy the phone. Samsung is going to have enough customers.

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Samsung is the new Apple

It was pretty obvious long before the Galaxy S5 release that a lot of people had already made their minds up. They were either going to love the new phone and definitely buy it, or they were going to hate it and Samsung deserves to die. Fanboys may shout louder than everyone else, but that doesn’t mean they make more sense. At least take a look at the damn thing first.

The hype, the circus of nonsense, the battle lines, doesn’t it remind you of something? It was obvious when the tech press roundly criticized the Galaxy S4 and then it went on to sell millions that Samsung had reached Apple heights. Brand awareness and loyalty sells an awful lot of phones. Samsung was rumored to have spent $14 billion on marketing and advertising in 2013, that’s not just on smartphones, but it’s so far in advance of the competition that it’s not even in the same ballpark. The company has sold more than 200 million Galaxy S phones. Apple has sold 420 million iPhones.

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Both companies make great devices year after year, but once that juggernaut is rolling the momentum is unbelievable. Competitors can make comparable or perhaps even better devices that are widely praised by the tech press, but they don’t make a dent in the big boy’s sales.

When any company gets that big, it becomes more difficult to like. Everyone loves an underdog right? Samsung is starting to draw an Apple-level of criticism in the comments fields of tech blogs across the web, but that doesn’t reflect the consumer market.

The S5 will be successful

We’ve been here before, and barring some kind of weird exploding-in-your-pocket fault, the S5 is going to sell. It deserves to do well. Samsung has nailed what it does best with the new Galaxy and it will be backed up by widespread marketing and solid partnerships with retailers and carriers (especially important for nailing the U.S. market).

Compared to the Galaxy S4 the reaction from tech journalists is overwhelmingly positive. This is partly because it offers a nice range of improvements over the S4 and partly because it was presented with a smidgen of humility (don’t underestimate how much the tech press hates the big musical number, celebrity endorsement, smoke and mirrors approach).

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Whether a lot of them will be buying it as their next smartphone is another matter, but then early-adopters and tech fans tend to be looking for something new and different. Check out our poll asking “Are you impressed by the Samsung Galaxy S5 or not?” for more evidence of that. Samsung is catering for the mass market.

Try explaining to your Dad why the Galaxy S5 should not be his next phone. Or convince a friend who isn’t tech-obsessed that the S5 is not for them. Now ask them what they think about your argument.

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