They say that history has the odd habit of repeating itself. And call me a pessimist, but I have a sneaky feeling that Samsung is slowly walking down the very path that cost its predecessor, Nokia, its smartphone throne.
No, this is not an anti-Samsung dirge. To be honest, I think we owe the company a lot. Its Galaxy S series was the first to really – really really – take on the iPhone, and its Galaxy Note series was perhaps the biggest innovation in smartphones since the iPhone itself. And yes, I do believe that its Galaxy Camera series is the way ahead when it comes to smart cameras, although they are still a work-in-progress.
Nokia of 2007
And yet, I cannot help but feel that the company is just beginning to repeat itself, just a bit like its Espoo predecessor did in the period 2007-2009. Cast your mind back half a dozen years if you will – Nokia started off 2007 with the militantly brilliant N95 and E90, devices which I think were in a league of their own at the time – the N95 with its slide out keyboard and terrific camera, and the E90 with its large screen and fantastic QWERTY keyboard. Both devices pretty much set new benchmarks for enterprise and multimedia performance. And Nokia flanked them with some very lower-priced options too, like the N Series in the multimedia side and the E series for the enterprise users.
And then, well, the company just seemed to focus on what could only be called incremental updates – the N95 8 GB, the N96, the N85, the N79 – all repeated the 5.0-megapixel camera, GPS connectivity and Symbian OS combination. On the E series front, the E71 and E72 did well, but there was no follow up to the large screen QWERTY combination of the E90. What’s worse, Nokia’s design, which had more than a touch of the unpredictable in 2007, began to get routine. Meanwhile, Apple and Android were chipping away at the Symbian firmament with different interfaces and form factors. By the time Nokia reacted, it was well, too little, too late, even though we did end up seeing some spectacularly good devices like the N8 and the E7.
Samsung of 2014
Fast forward to today, and well, Samsung seems to be following a path that is not too dissimilar. The bigger-brighter-screen-and-better-specs formula has been repeated non-stop since the Galaxy S II and the Note. And just as Nokia shied away from changing the design of “what worked,” the Samsung “look” too has become a standard one. Yes, the company has tried to innovate through its software interface for its devices, but far too many users are complaining about slowdowns and lags because of it. Shades of the trouble Nokia had with Symbian – and the wise men say that it is software and product design that more often influence a consumer than hardware specs.
The big question of course is whether there exists the equivalent of an Apple and Android to make the most of the Big S’ seeming inertia? On the surface, there do not seem to be too many candidates – Samsung is after all the highest selling Android manufacturer, and the touch-based interface that toppled Nokia is still going strong. But scratch that surface and well, Samsung is facing some rather stiff competition from other Android players. The phablet market it created has pretty much turned into a Battle of the Clones with just about every manufacturer coming up with large screen displays with multi-core processors of different speeds and hues. And while there is no radically different alternative to take the wind out of its sails like Android and iOS did in Nokia’s case, it does have a lot of worthies taking it on in the price department. LG with the G2 and Nexus 5 is emerging as a distinct threat, HTC might not have succeeded with the One to the extent it wanted but picked up points for innovation and design and has quietly tossed its hat into the relatively low-cost dual SIM market, and then there is the little matter of Motorola and Lenovo joining forces.
Most crucial of all, however, is the feeling of ennui that is creeping up amongst Android users. The OS might be the most popular one in the world, but it remains fragmented, and has not really had a radical update since Ice Cream Sandwich was unleashed on us a couple of years ago. And like Symbian, it is beginning to get predictable. So much so that suddenly phone design is becoming a major factor when it comes to deciding which Android phone one wants to buy. And that, alas, has not been Samsung’s forte of late – even the faux leather touch in the Note 3 had people frowning and many have sniggered at the “band-aid back” of the Galaxy S5. Jibes about Samsung’s “plasticky” build continue unabated.
Of course, it is utterly premature to say that Samsung is in trouble. The company remains the undisputed king of the smartphone world, and commands a comfortable lead over its opposition. Its greatest competitor, Apple, is unlikely to go toe-to-toe with it across all price segments, no matter how many rumors you hear about bigger and more affordable iPhones and iPads. Sony is not the force it once was, HTC is not out of troubled waters yet, and LG, Huawei and Lenovo are well behind Samsung in the numbers game, while Nokia is busy getting its act together under Microsoft.
However, it is also difficult to ignore the fact that the past few high-profile devices from the company have had more exciting spec sheets than appearance or even, in some cases, performance – a friend of mine has the Galaxy Note 3 for three months and is already complaining of lags, and I am not even going to talk about the first Gear smartwatch. Yes, Samsung might be doing well on the surface, but cracks are beginning to appear in its armor. Whether the opposition has the ability to exploit them, however, is another matter – the LG G2, HTC One, Moto G, the Lumias and Nexus 5, for all their innovation and value for money appeal, have hardly breached the Samsung Smartphone Fortress. What they have, however, shown is that there are alternatives.
Mind you, given Samsung’s history, it would be a brave person who would bet against the company coming out with a product that will again redefine the market, just as the Galaxy S series made AMOLED displays a rage and the Note triggered the phablet revolution. Yes, no matter what its critics say, Samsung has the ability to put on its innovative hat when it wants to, and stun the world.
Ah, but if it doesn’t, what then?
Well, history does have a penchant for repeating itself.
Samsung would know that. So would Nokia.