It’s an occupational hazard among gadget geeks to fixate on new hardware, and yesterday’s introduction of the gorgeous Galaxy S8 by Samsung made that easier than ever. I could write for days about how pretty and pleasant that new handset is. But I also notice that the traditional competitive narrative of my smartphone versus your smartphone is starting to fade out of relevance. Samsung may still measure its mobile ventures by the iPhone yardstick, but its bigger challenges these days are coming from Google’s suite of connected services. Yes, the same Google on whose Android shoulders Samsung's Galaxy S8 stands.
To appreciate the importance of software today, ask yourself what was more disruptive: Amazon's Alexa virtual assistant or the Echo speaker that was its first home? Is it Snapchat’s social sharing or the Spectacles camera-glasses that Facebook is trying to copy to death? And, as nice as the Nintendo Switch hardware may be, isn't it the marvelous Zelda: Breath of the Wild (and the promise of more excellent Nintendo games) that's pulling in the majority of new customers? Hardware serves as the foundation for each of those experiences, but it’s in the software that the biggest changes and revolutions happen. Software and the services it enables will be the thing that keeps Samsung going once all of its design and hardware optimizations have been tapped out.
As far as hardware and spec battles go, Samsung is a grizzled veteran. It outlasted HTC, outdid LG, and easily outsold Sony. The Galaxy S is deservedly held up on the same premium tier as the iPhone, however the old idea that consumers are making a free choice between the two is now retrograde. In mature smartphone markets, most people have laid down roots inside either the iOS or Android ecosystem, and that familiarity — along with the timing of when their mobile contract expires — carries great sway in their ultimate purchase decision. The iPhone 7’s record-breaking sales were in part driven by the built-up demand of millions of iPhone 6 owners coming off two-year commitments and looking for an upgrade.
There’s enough ecosystem and brand inertia in the mobile market for us to already know that both Apple and Samsung will sell hundreds of millions of phones this year. And though the cross-comparisons between their devices will be fun, most purchasing decisions will ultimately rest on more practical considerations than the beauty of their design or pixel-level differences in camera quality. Life would be easier for Samsung if the iPhone didn’t exist, of course, but that challenge is familiar and has gone relatively unchanged for a few years now.
More interesting than the Apple rivalry is Samsung’s increasing confrontation with Google. At yesterday’s event, Samsung announced a slate of new features to enhance its ecosystem, each of which had an already existent Google alternative. Samsung Bixby is unmistakably a competitor to Google Assistant, executing voice commands from the user, automating some basic tasks, and generally performing the Alexa / Siri / Cortana role. Samsung Connect Home is a smart router that looks like a Google Wifi and functions rather like a Google Home: its purpose is to unify and organize all the various Samsung appliances and other connected gadgets you have dotted around your home. And yes, it will support Bixby commands, too.
Samsung Pay is like Android Pay, only done by Samsung. Automatic multi-frame shooting in the Galaxy S8’s camera is the same thing as the auto HDR mode on the Google Pixel. And the updates to Gear VR go directly against Google’s Daydream virtual reality initiative, support for which was notably absent from Samsung’s S8 presentation. Even Samsung’s DeX desktop dock for the Galaxy S8 runs along parallel lines to Google’s gradual combining of Android and Chrome OS into a multi-platform operating system. At every software turn, Samsung finds a Google alternative ready to spirit away users and siphon away brand loyalty. It’s hard to build a sticky ecosystem that way.
The final, and probably most frustrating part, of Samsung’s competitive struggle with Google is the abundance of high-quality Google apps on the iPhone. Google’s pursuit of the maximum number of users for its services has led it to enhance Apple’s software ecosystem, to the cost of its own Android hardware partners like Samsung. It must grate, but that’s the reality of the situation. And hey, a more competitive environment only serves to improve the services you and I ultimately get access to.
What’s fascinating to me, as of today with the Galaxy S8 finally official, is that Samsung can stake a legitimate claim to have outdone Apple on the hardware front. The S8 will be the first smartphone to hit the market with the Snapdragon 835 chip and support for Bluetooth 5 and gigabit LTE speeds. It’s got wireless charging, storage expansion, a gorgeous, almost bezel-free screen, and a truly sumptuous design. The competitive landscape is sure to change in the fall, but right now Samsung holds the hardware and design lead.
But can Samsung say the same about conquering Google’s software? I can’t think of a situation where I’d need Samsung Pay ahead of Android Pay, and I trust Google more with nascent categories like VR or complicated ones like organizing the smart home. I’m also more willing to tolerate Google’s data collection than Samsung’s Orwellian TVs and their intrusive ads. Bixby will only speak Korean and American English upon the Galaxy S8’s release whereas the Google Assistant is proving itself useful across a growing portfolio of devices already. Even the Google Pixel justifies its top-tier price only thanks to Google’s wizardly camera algorithms and optimized Android performance.
When we go into the store, most of us are still likely to return to our primordial smartphone habits of comparing devices on the basis of design, look and feel, and the promises of inflationary spec sheets. But as the smartphone consumer evolves, software takes an ever more important role in the final purchasing decision, and that’s where Samsung’s greatest challenges lie. Samsung has the hardware to leap ahead of Apple, but will it ever have the software needed to surpass Google?
Photography by Amelia Holowaty Krales