Ahead of Samsung’s launch of the next-generation flagship smartphone, the Galaxy S4, you could read a fair amount of speculation about how the product would evolve compared to the previous version. Now since many of you will be reading this article after the product is unveiled, I’ll avoid most of the specifics.
The main point is that the device’s predecessor, the Galaxy S3, briefly outsold the iPhone in 2012, and came in third in worldwide sales in the December quarter. Just recently, Macworld and Chicago Sun-Times columnist Andy Ihnatko, a long-time Mac-oriented tech commentator, made a very public announcement about his switch from an iPhone 4s to the Galaxy S3. I have been using one myself, not as a permanent move, but to test the state of the art in Android-land and see what Apple is really up against as the iOS platform matures.
Samsung also sells more mobile handsets than any other company, and manages to be profitable at the same time, which isn’t a given. Sure, Apple earns far higher profits — although industry analysts seem to want to ignore that fact — but Samsung is also playing in a number of market segments where profits are going to be slim to none.
The long and short of it is that you have to take Samsung seriously. Yes, you could argue that Samsung is borrowing software and hardware features, and even marketing ideas, from Apple. At the same time, Apple and Samsung are embroiled in a series of aggressive lawsuits around the world even while the former buys billions of dollars of raw parts from the letter. In passing, it’s also reported that Apple is working hard to reduce dependence on Samsung for anything.
Unlike Apple, Samsung isn’t as careful about having details of a new product leak. That means more details about the hardware nuts and bolts. An example is the confirmation that Samsung would be using the same graphics hardware system, from Imagination, that Apple uses in the iPhones and iPads. Now if Imagination said anything about iPhone or iPad support in advance of the release of new Apple hardware, they would probably be looking for other customers for their technology. Samsung doesn’t have near the penchant for secrecy as Apple, but they still tried to turn the March 14 announcement into a special event.
There’s also an active Android community, where the arrival of the Galaxy S4 has been highly anticipated. But since Samsung doesn’t own the OS, those features are well known. The current version of Android, Jelly Bean, is at 4.2.2, and it is already available on other smartphones. So other than Samsung’s own stuff, not much will seem different compared to the Galaxy S3, which uses, in my AT&T version, Android 4.1.1.
Obviously Samsung can’t control the messaging when it comes to the OS. So their promotional pieces will focus on hardware elements that they believe will separate the Galaxy S4 from the pack. As the time approaches for the next iPhone, now presumed to be a 5S with largely internal changes, there will also be talk about the potential for iOS 7. Those who buy the Samsung can expect to be pretty well stuck with the OS it ships with, and perhaps another revision some months later. It doesn’t matter how quickly Google churns out those updates, or what security lapses have to be fixed. With the Galaxy S4, the final decision about software upgrades will lie with Samsung and their carrier partners.
There are, of course, loads and loads of Android phones, and new ones are being released on a fairly regular basis. HTC’s newest flagship, still called the One, is due to ship shortly, although it appears to have been delayed somewhat. As for the rest: There are just too many to keep track of them all; so many, in fact, that a potential customer must have an awful time picking the one that meets their needs. Quite often differences among similarly priced hardware are minimal, or difficult to fathom if you’re not technically inclined. The software differences may be more significant, for even though they mostly run Android, the handset maker may add their own tweaks and custom apps. Typical of the PC world, carriers will toss in a collection of junkware to help sell you extra-cost services.
At the end of the day, Samsung seems to have more control over the end-user experience than other handset makers, outside of Apple. This means that you will be able to buy a Galaxy S4 from one carrier and have it work mostly the same as one from another carrier, except for the varying amounts of junkware.
The arrival of the new Samsung will be heralded with a costly ad campaign. Even if you don’t care, you’ll hear all about it. Competition is fiercer thane ver, and Samsung is still fighting tooth and nail against Apple for every sale. At the end of the day, however, expect the Galaxy S4 to be a competently assembled handset, reasonably good-looking, and it will perform well. There will be a lot more pressure on Apple to deliver a compelling iPhone/iOS upgrade, and that’s a good thing.