Has Samsung forgotten anything?

Mar 15, 2013

The Samsung Galaxy S4 is announced and as well as a clutch of 'cool' features, it comes with the realisation that smartphone competition is now all about incremental improvement and price. The Galaxy S4 is a wonderful gadget and it will soon be matched by other wonderful gadgets looking pretty-much the same and sporting as good or better specs.

In addition to the basic improvements it has some new features which are eye-catching (time will tell whether the world is actually waiting for them).

The S4 detects when the user's finger is hovering over the touch screen (in an indecisive way?) and takes it upon itself to present additional preview information of whatever it is that's being hovered over. It will also pause a video when the user looks away (which might be more annoying than anything yet devised by man, but I hope I'm wrong).

There's a new bar code generator capability, Mobeam, which uses the phone's light source to fool a barcode reader into thinking it's passed over a code. That MIGHT be a useful feature - but I can't see myself carefully inputting bar codes from vouchers of an evening just to cause consternation at the checkout the next day. It's probable that Samsung is prepping this technology to work with its 'Samsung Wallet', announced at MWC earlier this month.

All very nice, but what's missing from the features list are game-changers. The sorts of things that Steve Jobs would hold up for the cameras and get a standing ovation for thee years ago. They aren't there, not because Samsung has fallen down on the job, but because the job has changed.

The Smartphone just entered middle age (in fact it might have already done so with the advent of the last iPhone). There will continue to be lots of extra bells and whistles offered and steady improvements to the basic functionality of smartphones, but your standard smartie template is well-established and it's now going to be difficult for vendors to differentiate without taking a huge gamble.

According to Jan Dawson, chief telecom analyst at Ovum, "At this point, Samsung appears to be trying to kill the competition with sheer volume of new features – there should be something here for everyone, even if most of these new features won't be used by most users."

Dawson pushes the line that vendors like Samsung should differentiate on software and services. But that approach will prove an uphill struggle and fraught with danger - viewed from both user and developer perspectives, major differentiation on software and services is another word for fragmentation and that's something the Android ecosystem is keen to see less of, not more.

So its seems likely that feature bloat on smartphones will continue to slow and price competition will break out at all levels. For the broader telecoms and IT industry this probably won't be seen as a bad thing - at MWC the rallying cry was for a little less spotlight directed at the gadget and quite a bit more illumination of the network and its service providers.

So the gadget producers (Apple and Samsung) look set to hoover up a slightly smaller share of industry profitability as smartphone prices begin to contract. The good news for telcos is that with new LTE networks on the rise and new content services to fill them, they have the opportunity to slowly win back more visibility as that gadget pricing power wanes.

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