Samsung Galaxy S4 launch: final transformation for company that stole Apple's crown
In New York this evening, Samsung aims – with the launch of the Galaxy S4 smartphone – to complete its transformation into the company that stole Apple’s crown.
With the iPhone manufacturer’s share price is at its lowest level in more than a year and markets worrying that its best days are behind it, Samsung will launch the S4, its latest smartphone.
This is a phone that is likely to track how your eyes move and use a screen of unprecedented resolution – the Korean company believes it will cement its position as the world’s leading technology brand. And in the words of one analyst, “there won’t be a person on the planet who hasn’t heard of the S4”.
That’s thanks to Samsung’s most potent weapon, its marketing budget. Coupled with unprecedented momentum, Samsung has powered its way to becoming the biggest phone manufacturer in the world, taking over from Nokia, and it has been able to promote itself as a brand uniquely positioned to sell consumers everything from refrigerators to televisions and from mobile phones to laptops. At the company’s recent European showcase it even renewed its push into robotic vacuum cleaners.
This week, however, is all about the global flagship device: the S4 is likely to have a large, 5” screen, built-in payment technology from Visa and 4G speeds. It will also develop the technology in its predecessor, the S3, that kept the screen on when it detected that a user was looking at it. And the fact that the device launches in America, too, is crucial: while Samsung has dominated in Europe in particular, in America it has not gathered quite the same following.
And it’s worth remembering that even in Europe, according to one network in the UK, while the S3’s sales have been remarkable, they still add up to less than half those of the iPhone. Apple’s device continues to dominate, regardless of suggestions that its latest incarnation is simply a thinner, lighter version of its predecessors. Its strength is built on its library of apps that make its products gaming, social networking and entertainment powerhouses, plus a range of accessories that turns them into everything from baby monitors to breathalysers. Samsung’s dominance is built on a wide range of phones and an array of other products.
Leaked images from China suggest the Galaxy S4 will look very similar to the Galaxy S3, only slightly larger
Ben Wood, an analyst at CCS Insight, says that the market used to look toward the next Apple product to set the weather. Now, he says, the industry has settled on a thin touchscreen device for all mobile phones and Apple’s timetable is fairly predictable. “That’s allowed Samsung to get the timing really perfectly right. With the S4 it will have a free run at the market because it’ll be out before the next iPhone and it will be able to capitalise on the perceived weakness of the current one”.
Wood’s quick to point out, too, that Samsung has built on the S2, which his own company observed was the product Apple should watch out for. Released in February 2011, it is still on sale today and selling well. It gave Samusng the credibility to overtake brands such as HTC and to ensure the continued decline of Nokia and BlackBerry.
“Arguably HTC’s One X was a better phone than the S3 was last year,” says Wood, “but Samsung has been able to outgun its rivals on every front because its strategy has been able to spend enormous amounts of money.”
Off the record, Samsung sources concede that it risks damaging its brand if it continues to spend so widely and without a clear focus. “The brand is the most important weapon, not one individual product”, says Wood.
With that in mind, however, the S4 must feature surprising new ideas if it is to preserve Samsung’s position. Analysts expect Samsung to emphasise that it will integrate seamlessly with both its other products and those made by Samsung’s rivals, and to focus on the fact that it is increasingly software rather than hardware that makes phones impressive. These devices act as the gateway to users’ music collections, newspaper, film libraries and more, so it’s what’s on the screen rather than what’s around it.
Nonetheless, even gadget fans complain increasingly of ‘smartphone fatigue’. One senior marketing executive conceded that most users continue to wait until their contract is up and simply upgrade to something that costs roughly what they spent last time.
And as, inevitably, each manufacturer’s users start to look for the next big thing, Samsung too will be looking over its shoulder. With major corporations including Sony pegging their entire future to the success of their mobile phone and tablet operation, then the two Asian titans expect that they will go head-to-head in the near future. Taking on Apple is no longer the only game in town. Sony’s new Xperia tablet was briefly the single most-searched for device online in the few days surrounding its launch.
Wood says now he detects “pent-up demand for the S4” as phone fans look for the next big thing. But as Samsung themselves well understand, the device is not one whose success will allow them to rest on their laurels. Coming hardly a year after the launch of the S3, it signals that the importance of the mobile phone, and the pace of new releases, is only going to get faster.