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Galaxy S3 design and name unchanged in America, carriers finally bested by Samsung

A small step, but a big win for the brand
June 5, 2012

By now, every Android fan in the U.S. knows that the Galaxy S3 is coming to five carriers this month – Verizon, AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile and U.S. Cellular – and we have already shown you what you need to know about each of the five Galaxy S3 offers.

But what’s really worth mentioning (and somewhat surprising for us) is the fact that Samsung has finally managed to beat carriers at their own game. Instead of custom Galaxy S3 versions for U.S. carriers we have a unified design that’s available in all international markets. Instead of custom names for the Galaxy S3 versions sold by the five carriers, we have one single name, which happens to coincide with the international name of the device.

That’s major news for Samsung, carriers and customers, and possibly other smartphone makers, and I’ll tell you why in what follows.

A little history

Back when Samsung was not able to challenge Apple in smartphone sales – technically the company is still unable to match Apple when it comes to sales of a single smartphone model – carriers had their way with the South Korean smartphone maker and pressured it to design custom versions of its flagship devices to meet their needs.

In 2010, the original Galaxy S was not sold as the Galaxy S in the region. Instead we had the Verizon Fascinate, the AT&T Captivate, the Sprint Epic 4G, the T-Mobile Vibrant and the U.S. Cellular Mesmerizing. We had five different designs too. One of the particularities of the American Galaxy S flavors was button layout – the four standard Android buttons found on most Android devices at the time replaced the Home button found on the default Galaxy S version. Furthermore, Sprint went ahead and asked for a slide-out QWERTY keyboard and 4G WiMAX support for its Epic 4G version.

In 2011, Verizon decided not to carry the Galaxy S2 at all, in favor of a Galaxy Nexus (short-lived) exclusive. But the other four carriers would still ask for certain customizations. The Home button was still out, and three out of the four carriers selling the handset wanted a 4.5-inch display in lieu of the standard 4.3-inch panel found on the Galaxy S2 model; only AT&T kept the original size in place. Furthermore, while AT&T, T-Mobile and U.S. Cellular kept the Galaxy S2 branding, Sprint called its model the Epic 4G Touch, a device that also came with 4G WiMAX support.

Add to all these custom requests, a lot of special pre-loaded carrier-made apps and you ended up with a Galaxy S or Galaxy S2 version that wasn’t exactly similar to what Samsung had in mind for the handset.

Following Apple’s lead

Since launching the original iPhone back in 2007, Apple did not let carriers have a say in anything related to the handset, whether it was design, marketing or pre-loaded apps. The iPhone models, currently on sale with three of the Big Four carriers and several regional carriers, have the exact same look and don’t feature any carrier markings. Each unit comes with the same default apps, all made by Apple, and there’s no software made by the carriers that needs uninstalling. Even when launching its own messaging platform, iMessage, that can be seen as an SMS/MMS killer, Apple did not check with carriers to see whether they would approve the move – and some of them were quite surprised to see this functionality in iOS 5.

Similarly, Samsung must have realized somewhere along the way that when it comes to its flagship Android handset – if not all smartphone it creates – it shouldn’t have to continue to modify the design in order to please carriers. Even carrier markings are not available on the front side of the phone, which is another win for Samsung.

It become more than obvious that the Galaxy S3 has generated quite a lot of interest among Android fans, just like its predecessors, and that U.S. mobile operators will have to carry the handset to please their subscribers.

Therefore, Samsung finally found itself in a position to play hardball with carriers. It certainly helps to be the number one smartphone maker in the world – a position that’s currently held by Samsung, but heavily challenged by Apple – when making such a decision. Sure, that doesn’t mean that carrier apps will not be found aboard the U.S. Galaxy S3 versions, but Samsung is certainly moving in the right direction.

Even Google was recently rumored to sell multiple Nexus-branded devices from its own online store, at some point in the future, and thus try to cut the carriers out of the picture.

Furthermore, we’re looking at an almost simultaneous Galaxy S3 launch in the U.S., which is a great accomplishment for the company. Not to mention that it’s a timely launch too, as the phone is hitting American stores about a month after being released in European markets. That’s definitely a lot better than last year, when the Galaxy S2 U.S. launch was pointlessly delayed by carriers for a few months.

What it means for Samsung

The fact that Samsung managed to convince U.S. carriers to sell the same Galaxy S3 version and keep its original name in place will certainly help the Android maker when it comes to marketing the device in the region. It’s surely going to be a lot easier to promote a single design and a single brand name in the U.S. instead of diluting the power of this particular brand name. In addition, promotion of distinct devices that would essentially be Galaxy S3 smartphones wearing different name tags and sporting different design lines is a resource-drain. This all boils to one thing: it could help Samsung sell even more Galaxy S3 units than predicted, especially since the U.S. is one of its most important markets.

What it means for customers

The good news for smartphone buyers is they won’t have to spend a lot of time choosing between the different versions of the same phone from different carriers. The message is quite clear, there’s only one Galaxy S3 handset in stores, and no matter what carrier you choose for it, you’ll get the same features and functionality.

Moreover, since carriers won’t be able use custom Galaxy S3 design to lure in customers, they’ll have to fight it out on a different battlefield, services offered – with all that’s implied: LTE availability and coverage, unlimited data plans – and prices for the handset and those mobile services. At least in theory, the customer should be the real winner here, especially now that Samsung decided to hold its ground in its “fight” with local carriers.

However, the bad news is that the fact that we’re looking at a unified design for the American market does not mean Samsung and its carrier partners will offer faster Android updates. Following Ice Cream Sandwich, we’ll see Android 5.0 Jelly Bean announced and released later this year. The Galaxy S3 comes with ICS on board, but as always with updates to Google’s next Android version, it may take a while until JB comes to Galaxy S3 buyers. The phone will certainly support JB, but consumers will have to wait for Samsung to release the update and then for carriers to approve its roll-out.

What it means for carriers

Carriers, at least in the States, may have finally been defeated. Following Samsung, we could see other smartphone makers defend their original designs and their chosen product names, which would see mobile operators scramble to offer better services and prices to buyers who would not be fooled into choosing between two devices that are essentially the same phone – AT&T HTC One X vs Sprint HTC EVO 4G LTE is a good example.

The alternative for carriers would be to build their own smartphones, but that’s not going to be as easy as it sounds. The Orange San Diego appears to be quite an interesting Android device, but that’s probably the only carrier-made phone that could compete against some of the other smartphones out there.

Of course, carriers are not the losers here. They will add millions of subscribers that will buy the Galaxy S3 and they’ll add millions of dollars to their coffers, especially since the Galaxy S3 may be the best-sold Samsung handset in their inventory to date. Sure, their margins may be lower than what they were previously used to, but in the long run they’ll still turn a profit.

What carrier are you buying the Galaxy S3 from and why? Drop us a comment below!