For all the criticism that Samsung has received for copying Apple over the years, it’s the times when the Korean company has copied itself that have proven most frustrating. Last year’s Galaxy S5 was a bigger version of the prior S4, which was a bigger version of the S III, which wasn’t all that great a smartphone to begin with. This sorry record of repetition caught up with Samsung in 2014 as better and cheaper alternatives undermined the Galaxy line’s dominance of both Android and smartphones in general. Stung by the unfamiliar sight of sales shrinking rather than growing, Samsung promised fundamental change to its smartphone range and the upcoming Galaxy S6 will be the truest embodiment of that reformation.
Update: Read the Galaxy S6 review.
Samsung’s scale is such that when it chooses to change, the whole mobile industry feels the repercussions. So far, the key alterations from previous Galaxy S generations appear to be a move to an all-metal construction, a display that may be curved on one or both sides, and the repudiation of Qualcomm’s Snapdragon processors in favor of a full reliance on Samsung’s own Exynos. These factors all matter individually, but taken as a whole they mark a major departure from the almost cynical pragmatism with which Samsung has approached its phones in the past. Let’s address each one of them in turn.
An electronics empire made out of flimsy plastic is rebuilding with better materials
The company that built an electronics empire out of flimsy plastic is about to start competing on the strength of its design. Samsung promised as much in the summer of 2014 and delivered a good first taste of its new commitment to better design and materials with the Galaxy Alpha. Shortly thereafter, the Galaxy Note 4 and Note Edge followed, using similar metal frames and abstaining from Samsung’s previous penchant for simulating things like leather stitching and lustrous steel. Marrying that improved construction to Samsung’s typically strong set of hardware specifications has made the Note 4 the unanimous choice as Samsung’s best smartphone and the nearest and best competitor to Apple’s iPhone 6 Plus. This augurs well for the Galaxy S6.
Samsung will seek to distinguish its new flagship phone in a way that leaves no room for confusion about which Galaxy is top of its line, and the quickest way for achieving that is to use a unibody metal case like the one that leaked during CES last month (or this one). It would be a completely novel move for Samsung that would place serious pressure on HTC, a fellow Android phone maker that relies on its design lead as a major selling point. If Samsung successfully recreates the allure of HTC’s design — a very big "if" — it won’t matter who did it first or for how long. Samsung’s deeper pockets will ensure better marketing to consumers and more prominent positioning on store shelves, undermining HTC’s hopes for a revival in what will be a pivotal year for both companies.
The curved-edge display that was already rumored for the Galaxy S6 seemed to be confirmed by invites for the phone’s launch that were issued this week. They show a silhouetted line that most people have interpreted as a device akin to the Note Edge, where one side of the display slopes off. That doesn’t immediately match up with the metal shells that have been pictured so far, but then Samsung’s eagerness for differentiation could end up producing both an Edge variant and an all-metal version of the S6. In either scenario, the company will have something altogether new and exciting to present to its customers. The curved-edge screen remains a solution in search of a real problem to fix, but that won’t stop it from being eminently marketable. Having such a signature look would help set the Galaxy S6 apart from its competitors — and should developers make it as awesome as Samsung hopes, it would drive those competitors to emulate it and buoy a return to sales dominance.
Curved screens don't have to be useful to be marketable
While Samsung’s exterior alterations remain imperfectly defined ahead of its March 1st launch of the Galaxy S6, the biggest internal change is now all but confirmed: there will be no Snapdragon-powered S6. A Bloomberg report blames the latest Snapdragon 810 for overheating during Samsung’s testing, while The Wall Street Journal indicates that Samsung’s faith in its new 14nm Exynos chip also factored into the decision to snub Qualcomm’s offering. This will have a huge impact on Qualcomm, which relies on Samsung’s immense order of processors every year to keep a healthy bottom line. The chipmaker has already had to revise revenue forecasts for 2015 because one of its big customers won’t be using its flagship 810 processor, and Samsung is the biggest customer of them all.
Qualcomm’s mobile crown has been subtly slipping over the past year, and the latest data from Strategy Analytics (SA) shows that it had 80 percent of the LTE market in the third quarter of 2014 whereas it enjoyed a 95 percent dominance at the same time in 2013. MediaTek is taking sales away from Qualcomm and "during Q3 2014, HiSilicon, Intel, Marvell, and Samsung also made progress in LTE basebands," says Christopher Taylor, Director of SA’s wireless research group, foreshadowing greater competition for the year ahead.
Is the Exynos processor ready to carry the full burden of Samsung's global sales?
Qualcomm’s lead in selling applications processors has been built on the strength of its integrated LTE modem, but Samsung’s progress has apparently been good enough to try to compete in 2015 instead of just playing along. It’s a momentous decision — given how many millions of smartphone sales are on the line — and should dispel some of the hardware homogeneity that has set in among flagship Android smartphones over the past two years. An Exynos-powered Galaxy S6 would join the iPhone 6 in offering an alternative to the Snapdragon 810 that's still likely to figure in most other flagship devices, and would add a vector of differentiation between Samsung’s best and the rest.
Different doesn't guarantee better, but it's a necessary first step
Samsung rose to its position as the world’s most prolific smartphone maker by simply packing more features and higher specs than the competition into a calculatedly cheap plastic shell. It wasn’t about being unique or different, it was a simple cost-benefit analysis that worked out well for the consumer and even better for Samsung. But the world that embraced those devices and rewarded Samsung for its strategy is no more. Now there’s a dichotomy of ultra-cheap handsets, where Chinese competitors are beating Samsung at its own game, and super high-end smartphones that come with high demands for beautiful aesthetics and premium materials. Addressing the latter of those challenges starts in earnest on March 1st.
The Galaxy S6 will be different, both from what Samsung has done until now and from the rest of the smartphone market in 2015. Being different isn’t the same thing as being better, but it’s a necessary first step along the way.