When Nokia’s cellphone star faded, it was Samsung that stepped into the role of the world’s biggest phone vendor while others took over the mantle of being design leaders. The most copied designs today still come from Apple, but now that Samsung has introduced the superb Galaxy S7 and S7 Edge, that’s about to change in a significant way. The world’s biggest manufacturer of phones is now also one of its best designers.
It was in the wake of the poorly received Galaxy S5 in 2014 that Samsung started showing a real commitment to improved industrial design. By the middle of that year, the Korean company had launched the handsome but expensive Galaxy Alpha, which was to provide the outline for a fundamental reform of its entire smartphone portfolio. What’s remarkable is that Samsung had the humility and the diligence to indeed change its ways. That distinguishes it from Sony, which has been talking about reorganizing its mobile division for longer than competitors like Xiaomi have existed, and from HTC, which still clings to its Sense software like an ineffective security blanket. It’s also the difference between Samsung and Nokia: the Finnish company’s prior success made it slow to let go of its Symbian legacy and embrace things like capacitive touchscreens, whereas Samsung has mercilessly scythed away its failed experiments.
Samsung said it would change, and it did
Where the Galaxy S6 was good, the Galaxy S7 is great. The first iteration of the present design sacrificed waterproofing and storage flexibility, which the new generation restores. All phone companies talk about heeding user feedback, but Samsung is actually doing it. People decried the lack of a memory card slot in the S6 series and the sharpness of the Edge’s back, so Samsung fixed both. This is as responsive and adaptable as any market leader has ever been. Instead of smugly reciting its hundreds of millions of annual smartphone sales, Samsung’s mobile division has addressed people’s pain points and ushered in innovations that are entirely its own. Plus it’s refined and polished every facet of its hardware to an unprecedented degree.
Choosing which compromises to accept is the very essence of design, while eliminating compromises is the purpose of engineering. Samsung’s unique strength is in having the vast technical resources and capabilities of a giant combined with a smaller company’s appreciation of its own limitations. Where competitors like BlackBerry and Nokia might once have shrugged off a slump in sales, Samsung responded with a violent reversal of its long-standing habit for uninspiring design overladen with speeds and feeds. The same company that sold the original Galaxy Gear transformed itself into the trendsetter that produced the excellent Gear S2.
At Mobile World Congress this year, Apple’s design signature was apparent at many of its competitors’ stands. The aluminum unibody of the company’s iPhone served as the model being iterated on by the entire mobile industry, but this will likely be the last year it's quite so prominent. At MWC 2017, I expect to see the rise of the Galaxy S copycats. Samsung’s strengths have up until now been hard to copy — because its vibrant Super AMOLED displays and great cameras require major investments of time and money — however its new penchant for beautiful yet distinctive design is ripe for ripping off.
The Galaxy S7 and S7 Edge will be copied as widely and ruthlessly as the iPhone
Samsung’s improvement has not been perfect or universal, as it continues to struggle with creating user experiences that truly improve on its underlying Android software. Hell, not undermining it with carrier bloatware would be an improvement on the status quo, and there’s still a dearth of real-world benefits to the Edge’s curved screen other than it looking gorgeously futuristic. But struggling with software is what every hardware manufacturer does, including Apple, which was mocked for hanging on to skeuomorphism for too long and faces tough questions about its nascent Apple Music service. Software will be the next frontier for Samsung to break through.
Everyone in the mobile world now acknowledges the importance of industrial design as a competitive advantage. For a product to command a premium price, it has to look premium first. Even LG has set aside the tacky old plastics for a full metal case on its new G5, and fans are responding to this trend enthusiastically.
Samsung was, for a long time, just a follower — but on the strength of its latest phones, it can rightly claim the position of now being a design leader. It's a company that benefits from having the scale and influence to determine its own design language, and it's chosen a delightfully beautiful one. The downside to being a leader that can be copied, however, is that Samsung will be forced to keep reinventing itself in order to stay ahead. Then again, maybe that’s no downside at all.