As exciting as it has been to talk, postulate, and speculate about the Galaxy S III’s hardware and specs before the third-generation Galaxy flagship smartphone was announced on May 3rd in London, once the device was announced one thing became apparent: Samsung is now a software company.
That doesn’t mean that Samsung is shying away from making hardware, like Microsoft has been, but it means that Samsung is becoming increasingly like Apple and Nokia in trying to control the user experience from the software side, which is a different strategy than what rivals like HTC, LG, and others are doing, or at least trying to market to users.
With the launch of the Galaxy S III, it’s clear that in the end, it doesn’t matter if the device is using a quad-core Exynos applications processor made by Samsung or a dual-core or quad-core CPU made by the company’s chip-making rivals. What sets the device apart is the user experience, and the Galaxy S III is beginning to address some of the shortcomings that Android has when compared to iOS.
Rather than try to outdo competitors, Samsung is creating hardware that does just enough and is reserving its development dollars for areas that will matter in the end to consumers. Unlike HTC, which chose to differentiate itself with unibody polycarbonate designs, micro-arc oxidation processes to create ceramic-like structures, and a re-designed and re-imagined camera engine, Samsung’s decision seems more like a recycle of some recent models. The camera and design of the phone is similar to the Galaxy Nexus. You don’t get the ceramics nor the unibody construction, and the camera is good but won’t impressive serious photographers much like Nokia’s PureView 808 or even the HTC One X’s shooter. Rather, Samsung’s Galaxy S III appears pedestrian.
The HD Super AMOLED display is the same PenTile-based technology that’s found on Galaxy Nexus and the Galaxy Note. LG’s beating out Samsung with its ‘True HD’ Optimus LTE2 smartphone with an IPS LCD display that lends to a crisper display.
To Samsung’s credit, what’s really new is the quad-core Exynos processor, but at the end of the day, for U.S. customers that may not matter as the Galaxy S III may be coming to U.S. without the Exynos CPU in favor of Qualcomm’s dual-core Snapdragon S4.
Differentiation Through Experience
So if hardware isn’t the route that the Galaxy S III isn’t tackling the mobile space to be at the top, Samsung is forging a different path through software. Fortunately, it’s not through further crazy UI overlays and a new overhaul to TouchWiz, but rather through various different services, apps, and utilities that help users take advantage of their devices.
Working Smarter, Not Harder.
Software is about working smarter, not pushing your device to work harder through hardware. Samsung is debuting SmartStay and S Voice to help users better interact with their devices.
SmartStay. SmartStay is clever and is something that I wonder why no one has thought of before. When you’re pondering memories or reading a webpage, sometimes the screen times out and you’ll have to hit the power button and unlock your device, which is aggravating if it happens frequently. One solution is to adjust the screen timeout setting so that the display stays on longer without timing out, but SmartStay uses the front-facing camera to scan your face and eyes and see if you’re looking at the screen. If you are, the screen stays on.
S Voice. Perhaps the most polished Siri competitor is S Voice, which extends the functionality of Google’s Voice Actions on Android further. According to Engadget, “In addition to initiating calls, you can wake the phone, request songs, send emails and text messages, use the calendar app, adjust the volume, capture photos, snooze the alarm and inquire about the weather.”
For now, Samsung says this feature will support eight languages, including, among others, Spanish, German, Korean and American / British English. Still, we wouldn’t put it past Samsung to teach the GS III a few more languages once it gets that whole “launching in 145 countries” thing out of the way.
Camera: It’s About the Software, Not the Hardware.
Just like how Apple wasn’t the first to tackle the camera phone market, Samsung isn’t rolling out any market-leading Carl Zeiss optics on the S III nor is the company going the way of HTC with a new ImageSense chipset. Rather, the pedestrian 8-megapixel sensor is a carry-over from the Galaxy S II, Galaxy Nexus, and Galaxy Note, but Samsung’s made it fun to use. Sure, you get the same zero-shutter lag that debuted on the Galaxy Nexus, but you also have fun and easy ways to share your memories through Samsung’s ‘Buddy Photo Share’ feature.
Android already has great integration with the in-built camera and gallery apps to share directly to various social networks, but Buddy Photo Share incorporates facial recognition software to quickly tag and identify your friends and family and give you the option to quickly share your mugs with them more discretely through MMS or via email.
Smart Best Photo Feature. Rather than HTC, which shoots continuous series of photos and asks you to choose the best looking photo to save in a series, Samsung’s automated the process by using some smart algorithms. While you can still choose yourself the best looking photo of the bunch, Best Photo also can do the work for you by analyzing other photos in the group for contrast, sharpness, and faces.
Group Tag. Want to quickly locate all your family photos together? Well thanks to a feature called Group Tag, the camera makes it easy for you to find all your photos with your family so you can easily call them up or share them. By creating groups, and tagging individuals in your group, those tagged images will show up under the individual’s tags as well as in the group tag. There’s also a Social Tag that will also pull in information from social networks to show up alongside your photos of a person once they’re tagged.
Face Zoom. When you’re a photo enthusiast, for which devices like the HTC One X and the Nokia Lumia PureView 808 are marketed to, then you may be interested in more diverse photo subjects, such as landscapes and wildlife. But when you’re a casual user, for which the Samsung Galaxy S III is marketed at, then you’re using your camera to capture moments out with friends and family, and Face Zoom will allow users to re-live those happy times. Double tap on a face in a picture, and the image will zoom in so that the face fills the 4.8-inch HD display of the device.
Media, Gaming, and App Discovery
Though Android is leading the smartphone market share in the U.S. and is one of top two platforms worldwide, Android’s ecosystem is mixed at best. There are a number of areas where it comes to content that Google trails iOS and even Windows Phone 7. Apps are disparate and fragmented, game developers are afraid of porting their games to Android due to piracy concerns, and though Google Play incorporates music, movies, e-books, and apps, the store is no where as polished as iOS. Fortunately, Samsung is making up for Google’s shortcomings, though the downside and net effect of Samsung’s effort is that it creates an ‘S’ ecosystem that you’re now tied to, rather than a Google Play ecosystem so that you can port your digital purchases with you should you choose to switch to another Android make.
Music. In terms of music, Samsung has launched a new Music Hub, which will debut initially in seven countries. Samsung will try to match iOS rival Apple with an iTunes Match-like feature allowing users to automatically have cloud access to their tracks rather than have to upload individual tracks to Google’s Music cloud storage service. At this point, Music Hub will compete with Google Play’s music store and will give users access to 17 million tunes.
Videos, Movies, and TV Shows. When it comes to videos, Apple’s iTunes movies and TV shows store is still leading the mobile market with the most amount of content available. Google Play’s movies store only allows users to rent flicks on their phones, but Samsung’s Video Hub will allow owners to purchase, rent, and download TV shows and movies to their devices. This, of course, will help Samsung broaden its hardware ecosystem with nice tie-ins to its HDTV line and other Samsung-branded home entertainment devices. In particular a new MirrorLink box that connects with any HDTV will allow users to take their content to the larger screen so your purchases aren’t just trapped on your Galaxy phone.
Gaming. And with games, it’s becoming a social experience thanks to increasing WiFi hotspots that are open and available throughout the country and the increasing reliance on always-on connectivity thanks to 3G and 4G connections on a plethora of devices. The Games Hub will help to extend the gaming experience on Samsung’s Android mobiles much like how Windows Phone has Xbox and iOS has Game Center. And like how you can take movies and TV shows to the big screen with the MirrorLink box, you can also take games to the big screen by streaming your device’s screen and mirroring it on Samsung’s or another company’s HDTV.
And like Microsoft’s Xbox ecosystem, the Games Hub is, as its name implies a hub. Games purchased through there will appear in the hub itself rather than as separate titles to clutter your app drawer, which will help users organize their apps better.
Health as an Added Value.
S Health. Apple’s beginning to demonstrate how easy it is for consumers to keep up to date with their health and Samsung seems to want in on that action with an increasing number of health conscious consumers. We’re going to have to see how NFC, low-powered Bluetooth and WiFi radios, and 3G and 4G connectivity will be leveraged by device-makers to create hardware accessories that tap Samsung’s ecosystem.
Like what Nokia is doing with the Windows Phone ecosystem, there is only so much that one company can do with Android. Rather than tweak and skin Android so that it no longer looks like Android like what Amazon has done, Samsung has turned to developers to create limited time custom apps for its smartphone. This time, Flipboard has been commissioned. The net effect is that this doesn’t further fragment the Android ecosystem and other devices will eventually have access to the same apps over time.
It’s unclear if like Nokia, Samsung will curate additional limited time exclusive apps for its devices.
Samsung is definitely walking a fine line between the experiences of HTC and that of Amazon. On one hand, beyond HTC Sense, HTC is now differentiating its devices through more premium hardware, more capable camera sensors, and design. Amazon on the other hand is creating an entirely new experience that bears little resemblance to the Android baby Google had birthed.
The Galaxy S III still retains its Android roots, but you can see a more polished experience and hardware that is less revolutionary. The design of the phone is a mesh between a Galaxy S II, a Galaxy Note, and a Galaxy Nexus and you can still see a continuation in Samsung’s design DNA with plastic parts, which had been a complaint among some users, PenTile displays, and user-serviceable batteries and memory cards. The design doesn’t appear to even be that evolutionary, but it works.
On the software side, Samsung has placed a lot of thought into how people use their devices. Much like Apple, Samsung is concerned about the experience. Is the camera on the Galaxy S III the best? No, and it is eclipsed by others, but it does make it more useful to use with sufficient enough quality, as we’ve seen in the past, and that makes a difference. If you take good pictures and have little way to organize and share those pictures, these amazing photos would be of little use. A mediocre camera with ways to tag, organize, share, and play back these images will lead to you using the camera more and sharing more photos. Coupled with enhancements to digital media stores for increased consumption, custom services and apps, and a user-centric smartphone, Samsung’s DNA is now more software geared than ever before. It’s not about creating a device that has everything including the kitchen sink, but making the right compromises and concessions that deliver a much improved user experience.
The company has managed to mash-up some of the best practices of the Amazon Kindle Fire, the Apple iOS ecosystem, the Windows Phone platform, and others into a tangible package.
With that, Android, with the help of Samsung, may become more polished.