Samsung’s flagship smartphones have changed a great deal over the years. I was covering the industry when Samsung released its first Galaxy S phone, and I have tested each and every Galaxy S and Note-series device that has been released ever since. What started as a quirky little handset has matured tremendously and split into two categories of devices. One focuses on fun and the other enhances productivity, but both are now immeasurably better than Samsung’s initial effort with the Galaxy S, which debuted in 2010.
But as good as Samsung’s smartphones have gotten, there are still areas where they fall painfully short of the competition. And now, with the Galaxy S6, it appears as though Samsung may finally have done something about it.
When Samsung first broke into the smartphone industry, its strategy was to be all things to all partners. It released different versions of each phone for different carriers, ensuring that its brand gained precious little traction in the process.
The user experience Samsung created atop Android was also a mess. It wasn’t intuitive, it wasn’t attractive and it couldn’t hold a candle to Apple’s iPhone.
And so Samsung made a few key changes.
First, it cut back on the customizations. No longer was there a “Samsung Captivate” for one carrier and a “Samsung Fascinate” for another — not to mention the “Vibrant,” “Infuse,” “Epic 4G,” “Stratosphere,” “Metrix,” “Proclaim” and “Indulge,” all of which were different versions of the Galaxy S in North America alone.
Instead, Samsung built a brand: Galaxy. And it spent billions upon billions of dollars to market that brand.
Next, Samsung focused on its designs and user experience. The company was stuck with Google’s Android software, but it had the freedom to customize that software however it wanted. Initially, its work with Android was awful and everyone crowed about how much better the software on Apple’s iPhone was.
If you can’t beat ’em, copy ’em.
Samsung’s products are unique and original in many ways. The company is also a trendsetter in many ways. But if you think Samsung didn’t shamelessly copy Apple’s iPhones for several years, you’re delirious.
Samsung rebuilt its entire mobile experience around iOS. If you don’t believe your own eyes after having used Samsung’s devices between 2011 and 2013, there are plenty of documents like this 132-page internal guide to ripping off the iPhone that prove it.
Apple was even awarded more than $1 billion in courts because Samsung stole its various designs and technologies. Of course, $1 billion is a small price to pay for a smartphone empire the size of Samsung’s.
But the pressure from the media, from vocal consumers and from Apple’s legal team mounted, and Samsung eventually went its own way. It stopped relying mainly on Apple’s designs and features, and started focusing more on its own. Samsung also refocused its marketing efforts away from a barrage of Apple attack ads.
In some ways, this made its smartphones even better than before. Its latest crop of Galaxy phones is undoubtedly its best yet. But it also made people stop caring as much.
Samsung’s new smartphones were no longer exciting, and there was no longer a very public war with Apple to fan the flames. Now, Samsung’s profits are plummeting at an alarming rate as the iPhone 6 and 6 Plus slam Samsung’s high-end phone business, and low-cost China-based vendors continue to pummel Samsung’s entry-level and mid-range phones, which make up the majority of its shipments.
But from the looks of things, it appears Samsung has found the first step on the road to recovery: Copy Apple.
There’s no question that aping Apple played a huge role in Samsung’s meteoric rise to the top, so why not go back to the basics? Sure there was plenty of whining from bloggers and gadget fans back when Samsung was happy to shamelessly copy Apple, but that didn’t stop tens of millions of consumers from buying Samsung’s smartphones and tablets.
Since the first Galaxy S launched in 2010, a common thread has run through all of Samsung’s flagship phones: they feel like crap. They’re also generally pretty ugly. Compared to the iPhone, and compared to other rival smartphones, they just don’t look appealing and they don’t feel premium.
Samsung’s phones are always powerful. The feature set is always vast and the displays are always stunning. But line up a Galaxy S or Note smartphone next to an iPhone 6, an HTC One M8 or a Moto X. The difference isn’t just obvious, it’s incredible.
Here’s Samsung, the top smartphone vendor in the world by volume, and its $600 and $700 high-end smartphones don’t even feel as sturdy as a $200 no-name Chinese smartphone. And they certainly don’t look as good as some of the smartphones now coming out of China, let alone other premium phones like the iPhone or M8.
With the Galaxy S6, however, it looks like that will change.
Back in January, BGR exclusively reported most of the Galaxy S6’s key specs. We also reported that the phone would be made entirely of aluminum and glass. Subsequent leaks have suggested that this will indeed be the case. We’ve seen an aluminum chassis that looks remarkably like the iPhone 6, and we’ve seen new renders that show the premium flagship smartphone Android fans have been waiting for.
It looks immeasurably better than last year’s Samsung phones. It looks premium. It looks like an iPhone.
Nothing is confirmed until Samsung unveils the Galaxy S6 on March 1st, but it sure looks like Samsung is going back to the strategy that worked so well for it previously. I also wouldn’t be surprised if we see Apple-bashing begin to play a bigger role in Samsung’s marketing again.
Don’t expect Samsung to be quite as shameless as it was in the past, though it still surprises me at times how comfortable Samsung is openly mirroring Apple’s efforts. We’ll likely see this again in a few weeks when the company debuts its mobile payment service.
But hey, it works.
Samsung is a trailblazer in many ways. Phablets would not exist as they do today if not for Samsung. Hell, the iPhone 6 Plus wouldn’t exist if not for Samsung. But the company’s mobile business is at its best when it’s following, not leading, and the Galaxy S6 may be just what Samsung needs to help right the ship.