On Thursday Samsung unveiled its newGalaxy S 4smartphone at New York’s Radio City Music Hall. There were no Rockettes, but there was dancing. There was a stage performance, but Android was barely a stage whisper and Google wasn’t mentioned at all. But the event said a lot about how Samsung sees today’s phone market.
More is more
As my colleague Harry McCracken wrote on Twitter during the event, “If the iPhone is still the best less-is-more phone, I think Samsung wants the Galaxy S4 to be the best more-is-more phone.” The entire event was overflowing—with specs, with features, with dramatizations.
After a very brief opening segment that laid down the phone’s specs, the rest of the hour-long presentation was about showing scenarios in which the phone’s features could make life easier, all in keeping with Samsung’s tag line for the phone, “Life companion.” Or as Samsung’s J.K. Shin said on stage, “Our focus is on how tech fits into life, not on specs.”
It’s right for Samsung to do that. The story of the last couple of decades of the technology industry is how most companies have marketed tech for tech’s sake rather than actually explaining why people would want to use a new product. And it’s also an advantage for Samsung, since it can use its massive marketing budget to promote features it has created and that go beyond the stock features on Android.
Oh, yes, Android: The Galaxy S 4 runs Android 4.2.2 (Jelly Bean), the latest and greatest version. And yet the word “Android” was uttered only once during the entire program, during a section on the Knox security feature. And Google, the maker of Android? Nary a word.
Samsung isn’t interested in being the brand chosen by a phone buyer who is shopping for an Android phone. It wants people to want Samsung phones, to want Galaxy devices. That it’s Android under the surface is almost immaterial, at least in the marketing: A fusillade of Samsung-only features is the thing that make it different. There’s S Voice and the new S Voice Drive, Dual Camera, Drama Shot, S Translator, Smart Pause, Smart Scroll, Story Album, Home Sync, and S Health (which comes with an entire line of accessories). That’s just the start.
The implication is clear. Sure, Samsung’s always going to take whacks at Apple. But it’s also taking lots of whacks at the entire rest of the Android ecosystem. The goal is to portray the rest of Android as nothing but a watered-down Galaxy.
Let’s put on a show
As much as I can praise Samsung for going beyond specs to focus on real-life scenarios, and as fascinated as I am by its attempts to put Android in the rearview, I can’t let the actual presentation go. It was weird. In honor(?) of being at Radio City Music Hall, the bulk of the show was a combination between an off-Broadway show and an infomercial. There was a tap-dancing kid. A sportscar mounted on its side. A hot Brazilian girl. An actor squabbling with his crusty agent. A mysterious woman with gloves. A cadre of girlfriends in Miami who drank, danced, ogled a shirtless man, and oohed and aahed about colored phone accessories.
As someone who has sat through a whole bunch of two-hour, butt-numbing tech presentations, I salute Samsung for creating something that was colorful, loud, and frequently surprising. In the end, though, I felt the style washed away the substance. In creating a kitschy stage show about those Miami girlfriends and that precocious kid and those two backpacker bros, Samsung took the focus off its phone. I got to see many Galaxy S 4 features in action, which is great, but I was left a little confused and wanting more.
Still, there’s no doubt that the two biggest names in smartphones are Apple and Samsung. Not Apple and Google. Not iOS and Android. Apple and Samsung. Apple would tell you so, and no matter the protestations of Google and the other Android phone makers, Samsung would tell you the same thing. Thursday’s event was about everything Samsung’s phones do that no other phone does—not just the iPhone, but all its Android competition, too.