The first laptop and phone I bought with my own money were both made by Samsung. I can't say I've ever fallen in love with the company — the laptop blew out a speaker in the first year and had a wobbly hinge that broke by year two — but there's no denying It knows how to appeal to budget-conscious users. Asus may have pioneered the netbook, but it was Samsung that turned feature-to-price ratio calculations into an art of global domination. From fridges to cameras to TVs, people buy Samsung gear not because they love or trust it, but because its spec sheet ticks the right boxes. The brand is synonymous with ubiquity, but not quality.
And then the Galaxy S came along.
All of a sudden, a former Android also-ran jumped ahead of the pack and announced itself as the new leader. The Galaxy S was just a natural extension of Samsung's continuing strategy of beating buyers into submission with feature lists, but it pushed the company past a certain threshold of quality. It wasn't just some cheaper copy of a Nokia or Sony device you were buying, it was the only phone combining a Super AMOLED display with Hummingbird graphics and the flourishing Android OS. Almost overnight, Samsung found itself atop the pile of iPhone alternatives.
To the company's credit, the following year was not idled away and the Galaxy S II made just as many shock waves as the original. In my review shortly after its launch, I described the GSII as the best smartphone on the market. It pushed Samsung to an even higher plane. In moving to a more refined design and offering the smoothest Android performance to date, Samsung seemed to signal a newfound swagger and an awareness that it was now in the big leagues. It was a painstakingly thought-out product that emphasized higher quality. And it was a massive intergenerational upgrade at a time when others, chiefly HTC, were beginning to stagnate. It led me to believe that Samsung was borrowing more from Apple than just industrial design, that Seoul was emulating Cupertino's prioritization of quality as well.
I came to trust Samsung
But the Korean leopard hadn't changed its spots. We were just riding the crest of its massive technological advantage, there was no change in philosophy. In simple terms, Samsung was still Samsung, only its products happened to be awesome enough to be desirable in their own right. The signs of this were all there, in the shadowy expanse between its glamorous product launches. Once you buy a Samsung phone, you're pretty much on your own. Did your Galaxy S ship with a dysfunctional GPS unit? Tough. Did you hope for timely software updates to your US variant of the same phone? Tougher still.
The humorless number-crunchers at Samsung weren't willing to spend money on anything they couldn't later put on a product launch billboard. Which brings us neatly to the Galaxy S III.
Samsung filled two 30-meter pages on the widest screen in London last night with the full spec and feature list for the Galaxy S III. By the company's internal metrics, that device is already an unqualified success. But in terms of its relationship with the consumer, it was a dismal moment for Samsung. All the discerning consumers, the ones who are potentially most loyal and certainly most influential, will no doubt have been aware of the Galaxy S heritage and Samsung's bullish decision to hype up the third-gen handset by giving it a special launch event and teasing it with a campaign encouraging users to not be "one of the sheep."
It was dynamite, and boom it went
I was one of those amateur logicians who put history and marketing together and believed that Samsung had something more to show us. It didn't need to be different, it just had to be more than what we'd seen already from HTC, LG, and other Android contemporaries. Those pitiful sheep herders.
So what did we get? The Siri-imitating S Voice, a quad-core SoC that's already been announced for the Meizu MX, a suite of camera enhancements that rips off HTC's ImageSense wholesale, and a signature animated lock screen that emulates interaction with water, something that's been a live wallpaper option on Android phones since 2010. Oh, and industrial design and build quality that you'll find on any anonymous South Korean MP3 player — Samsung seems to have tried trickling its design language up, never a good idea.
We're told not to be sheep, yet Samsung itself is just falling in line with the herd. The company seems oblivious to the sense of betrayal this has engendered in the informed consumer. For the first time in its history, Samsung had enough sway with phone buyers to convince them to hold off on the premier option on the market, HTC's One series, in wait for Samsung's riposte. The Galaxy S pedigree was on the line, and if Samsung could live up to it, a bond of trust was going to be its reward. People were ready to start treating Samsung like Apple, giving it the benefit of the doubt both in terms of product timing and the adoption of unfamiliar new features.
Then the talk about wind, water, pebbles, and feng shui home screen organization started.
Profligacy in the face of opportunity
I get it, most people think the future of mobile devices is in developing new software solutions, but even if I could keep straight all the S-branded extras Samsung enumerated at its Galaxy S III launch, I wouldn't be able to tell you what difference they're going to make to your life. Not to say that they're all terrible, Smart Stay eye tracking is an interesting idea, but none feel epochally significant. And while hardware is growing less and less important, industrial design still counts, and the Galaxy S III falls below the necessary threshold of a high-quality device (Pentile displays belong in the past), while also failing to maintain the Galaxy S tradition of offering a unique hardware selling point or two.
At best, Samsung matched the HTC One X. At worst, it indulged in a two-month delay of an MWC-worthy device, stoked a frenzy of anticipation that was unjustified by the eventual product, and jeopardized the still fragile growth of its brand reputation among smartphone enthusiasts. I'll leave you to decide which extreme I'm gravitating toward.