Can Samsung take the fight up to Apple with the Galaxy S6?
The war between Apple and Samsung is coming to a head as we approach the smartphone singularity.
Every few years a new category of gadgets explodes onto the scene as the 'Next Big Thing', encouraging tech lovers to open their wallets. The highly-anticipated Version 2 is typically a major advance which encourages people to upgrade, but after this innovation slows as the category matures and competitors find their feet.
After a while designs converge and sales stagnate as the market reaches saturation point and we turn our attention to the 'Next, Next Big Thing.'
Smartphones sales have done well to avoid such stagnation, even though practically everyone who wants a smartphone has one. For all the extra grunt and features, it's raw screen real estate which has driven upgrades – admittedly helped by the fact that many people get a new handset every two years, whether they need it or not, thanks to the nature of mobile phone contracts.
Initially Apple refused to concede that bigger was better – the downside of Steve Jobs' overconfidence – which left the door open for larger Android devices from the likes of Samsung to thrive. Apple under Tim Cook has been playing catch up, eventually abandoning its one-size-fits-all approach last year to offer the 4.7-inch iPhone 6 and 5.5-inch iPhone 6 Plus.
The iPhone 6: A real money-spinner for Apple
Last year's new iPhones obviously tapped into pent-up demand for larger Apple devices, with a major sales spike mostly coming from people switching across from Android, if you believe recent reports. It seems when you take size out of the equation Android loses some if its shine.
The lacklustre response to last year's 5.1-inch Galaxy S5 adds to Samsung's woes, increasing pressure to go large with the upcoming Galaxy S6 – which is expected to be unveiled on March 1 at Mobile World Congress in Barcelona. If the Galaxy S6 pushes up towards 6 inches, would you still say it's staying one step ahead of the iPhone? Or is it simply running away again? Is Samsung confident enough to stand and fight on other fronts?
Samsung's hefty Note phablet gave it the edge over Apple, but the South Korean tech giant also backed itself into a corner. If the Galaxy S6 smartphone goes up to 5.5-inches then it's bumping up against Samsung's own 5.7-inch Note 4 phablet.
There are rumours that Samsung will push the phablet threshold up to 6-inches with the Note 5, but it has to draw the line somewhere. It's worth noting that LG's new G Flex 2 phablet, unveiled at CES, has dropped back from 6 to 5.5-inches. Most pundits agree that it's a better handset for it.
As we approach the smartphone singularity it's starting to look like 5 inches is the sweet spot for screen size, give or take a quarter of an inch. While Samsung's natural instinct is to go larger, there's speculation that it might double back on Apple and drop down to 5 inches with the Galaxy S6.
Drawing a line in the sand on screen size might be a smarter long-term strategy for Samsung than risking going too large, but then it needs to be ready to fight other battles.
Cut the clutter
The Galaxy S6 might compete on design and ditch the plastic body in favour of a premium aluminium build, like Apple and HTC. This would be a mistake if it came at the expense of the removable battery and SD card expansion slot, burning loyal customers who have stuck with Samsung for these very features. The design of last year's 4.7-inch Galaxy Alpha might be a sign of things to come – an aluminium frame with a plastic back which retains the removable battery but ditches the SD slot.
This begs the question, why does Samsung insist on such a convoluted product range? Diversity is Android's strength, but not when it leaves shoppers confused as to which is the flagship device. Along with the Galaxy S6 and Galaxy Alpha, you can throw in Samsung's new unibody aluminium Galaxy A3, A5 and A7. There are actually 25 different Galaxy smartphones listed on Samsung's Australian website. While Apple sends a clear message to iPhone shoppers, Samsung's message can be lost in the noise.
So how else does Samsung take the fight to Apple? Most people no longer care about the grunt under the bonnet, pixels on the screen or the resolution of the camera – all they know is that it's ample for their needs. If these features really drove smartphone sales and brand defections then Samsung would have knocked off Apple long ago.
That leaves you with the Android operating system, which Samsung tends to cram with bloatware and cutesy ringtones. Word is that Samsung is looking to tone it down with the upgrade to Android 5.0 Lollypop, leaving many of its helper apps in the Samsung app store rather than pre-loading them on the Galaxy S6.
While some punters would welcome a cutback on Samsung bloatware, this also means blending in more with the rest of the Android crowd. If Samsung really wants to take the fight to the iPhone it needs to compete on ecosystems, but here it's picking a fight with the heavyweight champion.
Apple's benevolent dictatorship
Apple's greatest strength is that its ecosystem thrived under a one-size-fits-all benevolent dictatorship. Meanwhile Samsung's greatest strength is that it's not iron-fisted Apple but, of all Apple's competitors, it comes closest to matching Apple's tightly integrated ecosystem. Of all the Android players, Samsung has the best suite of third-party apps thanks to exclusive deals.
Samsung beat Apple to the punch with the global Visa NFC deal, but squandered this advantage and it's now expected to follow Apple into the payWave space with Samsung Pay. Meanwhile S Health has a headstart on Apple's HealthKit, Gear wearables have the jump on the Apple Watch and Samsung's SmartThings acquisition puts it ahead of Apple's HomeKit.
Samsung needs to capitalise on these if it wants a slick ecosystem to rival Apple. Unfortunately for Samsung, Apple has the Midas touch thanks to its large and loyal community of developers and accessory makers – the devastating upside of Steve Jobs' aversion to diversity. Headstarts don't count for much when the competition can blow you away overnight.
If Samsung wants to abandon the size race then it needs to beat Apple at its own game. Cultivating a killer ecosystem and selling shoppers on the vision is Samsung's best chance of taking a serious bite out of Apple.