TECHNOLOGY SPECTATOR: Samsung fires across Apple's bows

Samsung's newly launched Galaxy III has upped the ante in the 'coolest smartphone' stakes and could present a real threat to Apple.

Technology Spectator

Samsung's newly launched Galaxy S III smartphone is a warning shot fired across Apple's bows. Apple's next iPhone 5 must deliver wow factor technological breakthroughs, or they'll lose the coolest-smartphone stakes.

The first law of infotech commentary, to pick just one winner in any product category and declare the rest losers is lame, I know, but there are real-world knock-on effects.

Flagship products set the tone for the entire brand. While only the most cashed-up gadgeteers buy those products at early-adopter prices, those enthusiasts and commentators influence the buying decisions of the less-well-off. Can't afford a Galaxy S III? Try another of Samsung's fine, but cheaper, phones.

Right now Apple is under pressure. The world, including Wall Street, wants to know how the post-Jobs Apple will handle products and innovation.

The iPhone 4S, released in October 2011 with a dual-core processor, was largely an incremental improvement on the iPhone 4. The cool kids run quad-core now. There was of course Siri, the voice-controlled "personal assistant", but it was labelled beta technology, and there have been complaints about its unreliability.

With Samsung having fired the first shot, Apple's return volley is expected to come in September or October with the iPhone 5, if you believe the myriad Apple rumour websites.

The coolest-smartphone stakes is currently a two-horse race between Samsung and Apple, and that's unlikely to change.

HTC's One X, based like the Galaxy S III on the latest Ice Cream Sandwich of Android (version 4.0), didn't make it out of the starting gate. No voice control to take on Apple's Siri? Nor any other interface breakthroughs? "Amazing camera, authentic sound", as HTC's slogan puts it, are good incremental improvements in performance, but they're not new ways of doing things.

And Windows Phone 7 what even is it? Gartner reckons that in Q1 2012, the Windows smartphone market share dropped to 1.9 per cent worldwide, down from 2.6 per cent a year earlier. I suppose it now has a certain hipster appeal...

Who wins this race will come down to the usual factors. Technical specifications, cool new features, market positioning, and the potential for unexpected disasters.

The Galaxy S III's specs are much what you'd expect in 2012. Quad-core, HD video, 8 megapixel camera, 4.8-inch Super AMOLED display and so forth. The 2100mAh battery, compared with the HTC One X's 1800mAh, means more battery life – a big selling point. And it appears that Samsung has some power management tricks.

Apple should in theory be able to match most of this, with the possible exception of the display size. There's a reason for the iPhone display being standardised at 3.5 inches. Your thumb can't reach any wider, making one-handed use difficult.

That makes the Galaxy S III more of a mini-tablet than a phone – well, apart from the making phone calls thing, but who does that? And perhaps that, too, is an important question about the future.

The Galaxy S III also suffers the same problem as all Android devices: the generalised low-level untidiness that comes from a suite of cool new services being assembled from originally unrelated components. We're talking cloud storage from Dropbox, movie streaming from Quickflix and email from Google's Gmail, for example, rather than Apple's unified world.

Some people see that as an advantage, of course.

When it comes to marketing, "Samsung has found a way to out-smug Apple," as journalist Josh Taylor tweeted from yesterday's launch in Sydney, "Orchestra and all."

The Galaxy S III is "inspired by water, wind, leaves and pebbles," Samsung representatives said with a straight face. It comes in two colours, marble white and pebble blue. "Each makes a very unique natural statement of its own," we were told. Whatever that means. That's right up there with anything Apple has ever done.

But the punters probably won't mind the smug. They'll love the cool new "social" features. Unless the inevitable big privacy disaster that'll hit cloud and social services happens to strike Samsung first, or the warnings we hear about Android security turn out to be true, Samsung has a winner here.

The Galaxy III S represents a real threat to Apple, unless they prove they can still come up with the goods later this year.

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