[UPDATED] Galaxy S III: No Risk, No Reward

[Originally a comment on Vlad's piece, "How Samsung broke my heart"]

I want to like the Galaxy S III. I want it to be a step forward. But Vlad is right.

Skins are a means of differentiation, but they played a helpful role (for the most part…) in the Gingerbread days and earlier. ICS makes skins unnecessary as a means of enhancing the UX, meaning that their sole purpose these days is differentiation. Differentiation is not a good enough reason to skin ICS.

Samsung’s design lead gave an interesting interview to Reuters recently wherein he frankly seemed lacking in the confidence you need to push the envelope in mobile design. One example:

I might not be at (Ive’s) level yet, but I believe Samsung will produce such iconic products one day. It’s not just effort that makes it possible for a new product to be a massive hit. It also has to be timely, and technology should be ready to make a certain design a reality.

Okay, shipping a successful product design is part talent, part timing, and part luck. But The reality is that Samsung needs to take risks. For starters, ship vanilla ICS. That would do several things:

  1. You send a message: we don’t need the crutch of crappy skinning to stand out.
  2. You force the eyes of Vlad Savov and his ilk to your hardware, giving you a spotlight under which to win hearts with subtle but novel design flourishes.
  3. You have to design beautiful hardware. Not innovative, or unique, or perfect. Beautiful. I think the Galaxy Nexus is beautiful. The original Pre was beautiful. The goddamn iPhone 4 is beautiful.

The Galaxy S III is not. Aesthetically, it’s a step backward. Gimmicks will not beat the iPhone.

The goal shouldn’t be to beat the iPhone anyway, it should be simply to play the same game. The game is not gimmicks (even Siri is a flop a few months after its release, at least among my 4S-using friends). The game is taking something everyone has, a mobile phone, and making it look and feel beautiful. Feel is where materials come in—enough plastic already. If metal messes with signal, engineer a fix—that’s the practical part of design. Figure it out.

Make your users excited to show iPhone people their Samsung device. I love showing people the Galaxy Nexus. They’re genuinely surprised at how great it looks. Things typically go downhill once I hand it to them, not necessarily because of the plastic, but because they feel less solid, less substantial in the hand, than an iPhone, despite their larger size.

UPDATE: The Sharp Aquos Phone 104SH is very poorly-named, but it comes close to what I'm asking for in the post above. Sharp used ICS, and, while there's a skin, it looks pretty light. More importantly, they nailed it with a subtle but unique design language on the hardware side. This isn't a home run, but it's much closer to my vision for mobile beauty than the Galaxy S III. Read Sam Byford's review here.