So here we are, fully irradiated in the afterglow of another blockbuster launch event from the Android juggernaut that is Samsung. Another year, another overwhelming set of new features, and another amazing campaign of hype and anticipation-building. Only the new phone looks just like the old phone. Isn't that supposed to be a cardinal sin?
Until today, it was believed that only Apple could get away with mildly refreshing its flagship smartphone device without suffering an apposite dip in sales and consumer interest. Now, Samsung is emulating the Cupertino strategy in a bid to prove that it is every bit the globe-conquering big timer that Apple is. The Galaxy S4 design is, quite literally, the Galaxy S III’s design expanded to a 5-inch screen size. It moves Samsung further away from Apple in terms of pure specs and measurements, but it closes the distance between the two mobile leaders in terms of strategy.
Tick: Galaxy S III, tock: Galaxy S4
Apple has famously adopted a tick-tock annual refresh cycle for its phones, characterized by the appendage of ‘S’ to a model name. Whereas the iPhone 3G, the iPhone 4, and the iPhone 5 were the major upgrade ticks, the 3GS and 4S sandwiched in the intervening years provided the more incremental tock updates. This is a scheme that shouldn’t really work, but thanks to a unique combination of consumer appeal, ecosystem, and quality, Apple thrives with it. After the worldwide success of the Galaxy S III, Samsung’s confidence has been buoyed sufficiently for the Korean chaebol to believe that it too can afford to put industrial design on autopilot for a year without suffering any pain for it. And, given the febrility surrounding the Galaxy S4’s launch, there appears to be no reason why that shouldn’t be the case.
But how did Samsung get to this stage? The company’s own answer would be that the Galaxy S III delivered a design people loved, combined with market-leading specs and a set of differentiating features that were both useful and plentiful. In such circumstances, it makes perfect sense to retain the design and just refresh the components and refill the overflowing cup of features. That’s exactly what Samsung has done today, having reintroduced its S Health app with complementary new hardware, ported functionality over from the Galaxy Camera and Galaxy Note, and upped the ante with yet more gestural and eye-tracking interactions. The blueprint is being followed to the last letter.
It doesn't matter if you can comprehend Samsung's ads, it only matters that you see them
The real reasons behind the Galaxy S III’s popularity, however, may be somewhat different from Samsung’s estimation. Last year’s flagship Galaxy device was at all times accompanied by an entourage of intense, bank-breaking marketing. None of it was particularly clever or ingenious, it was just a simple case of brute force advertising keeping the phone perpetually in front of consumers’ eyeballs. Every opportunity to exploit potential comparison points with Apple was exploited, every incendiary technique known to marketers was resorted to (including the sexualization of Mrs. Santa Claus). Through sheer force of marketing and monetary will, the Galaxy S III became "the other phone" to the iPhone’s established leader. If Apple’s handset was the imperious Bjorn Borg of the smartphone world, Samsung’s Galaxy line was going to be the trash-talking John McEnroe that challenges him at every turn. And it worked.
Today’s Galaxy S4 introduction marks the end of the pre-launch teasers — which once again included expensive and expansive video ads — and the beginning of another round of marketing hysteria. From full page newspaper spreads to YouTube pre-roll commercials, you can expect to be gently marinated in a brine of Galaxy S4 marketing over the next couple of months.
Samsung may be convinced that the strength of its high-end phones is in the components it assembles and the software it devises, but the Korean company is also wise enough to keep investing generously in their promotion. Apple’s ascendancy to the smartphone throne was swift and, in its time, without comparable competition. Now the Cupertino company is coasting on a massive wave of consumer goodwill, but Samsung is catching up by constructing its own crest of user awareness — one that’s fuelled as much by marketing dollars and amusing bravado as it is by solid hardware and manufacturing expertise.