On Sunday, Feb 25, on the eve of Mobile World Congress, in Spain, Samsung launched its latest flagship smartphones the Samsung Galaxy S9 (S9) and the Galaxy S9+ (S9+). The products build on a successful formula of design and technology that we have been accustom to with the Galaxy S line. The Infinity Display that was introduced with the Galaxy S8 gets even more immersive this year as Samsung shaves off the lip and the chin on the S9 and S9+. The experience is even more immersive especially when watching video content and taking advantage of the new Dolby Atmos sound. The camera gets better low light and super slow-mo video both features high-up in consumers needs. At the event, Samsung showed clever ways to use the slow-mo videos you create from using it as a lock screen, to watch it in reverse and also to create a GIF.
If you are buying the S9+, you are also getting a dual camera for the first time in a Galaxy S model. Lastly, AR emojis based on a data-based machine learning algorithm, which analyzes a 2D image of the user and maps out more than 100 facial features to create a 3D model that reflects and imitates expressions of the user as to deliver a very personalized experience that can be shared on third-party messaging platforms. If you are not keen on using your own picture you can always pretend to be Mickey Mouse or one of The Incredibles.
It was also interesting to hear Samsung talk about AR beyond emojis. Their early move into VR had some industry watchers think that AR was not going to be an area where we would see much involvement from Samsung. Clearly, this is not the case as we have seen Bixby Vision add capabilities in that area from translating signs to estimating calories. At the launch, through the iOS and Android Unpacked app the audience was able to visualize the new Galaxy S9 by pointing our phone camera at the event pass we were given.
With the S9 and S9+, Samsung addressed some of the complaints users of the Galaxy S8, and S8+ had in particular with the position of the fingerprint reader which is now below the camera rather than on the side of it like last year. Another improvement was made to face recognition with the addition of Intelligent Scan which brings together iris scanning and facial recognition for a more accurate and convenient way to unlock your phone. Samsung did not make any claim around security for Intelligent Scan but highlighted that this new solution would improve the experience in case of low light, for instance.
Many of the new features that the Galaxy S9 sports show off software, semiconductor, and hardware expertize. I still feel that Samsung is not talking about software in a very confident way unless it is around Knox. While historically, software has not been Samsung’s strongest point, I feel this has changed since DJ Koh took on the leadership of the Mobile Division. Going forward, with more of the value add shifting from hardware to software, Samsung must learn to talk confidently about software even when, maybe like in the case of Bixby at this launch, the progress is not as strong as they would have wanted it.
Reimaging an already Successful Product is Hard
There is no question that owners of older Galaxy S models will find this upgrade appealing especially with the dual camera system on the S9+. The more difficult audience to convince are the current Galaxy S8 and S8+ owners who are not in the “I always want the latest model” or “I am on an annual replacement plan” groups. Samsung is certainly not alone in trying to grow the numbers of users who upgrade every year.
The problem the industry is facing is, however, that with enhancements that are less about hardware and more about an improved experience it gets harder to convince users because it takes more time and effort to show the value add that is being delivered. This is especially true when the price tags of these devices grow every year. Trade-in incentives like the one Samsung is offering with the pre-orders of the S9 and S9+ certainly help. In the future, I do wonder if brands targeting the high-end of the market will have to get into financing plans more aggressively than they have done thus far.
This year, Samsung also has the added challenge of attracting potential buyers from Apple. Such a challenge has nothing to do with the S9 and S9+ not being great smartphones, but it is simply because much of what they have to offer was already in their predecessor and they are missing the wow effect that Apple got with the iPhone X where they caught up with some of the Samsung’s features: wireless charging, OLED screen, and edge-to-edge screen. This is why answering the most often asked question: “can the Galaxy S 9 compete with the iPhone X” is not that straightforward nor would it be accurate to call the S9 the response to the iPhone X. From a technology perspective, the S9 and S9+ have very little to envy the iPhone X. Yet from a portfolio perspective they feel more like an evolution of the previous products, the same way the iPhone 8 and 8 Plus did with the iPhone 7 and 7 Plus.
Samsung’s Portfolio conundrum
Considering what I just said it is easy to see how the bar for Samsung and its next Galaxy S will be much higher. If we assume that the next Galaxy S will be called Galaxy S 10 and will be launched a year from now, I would expect Samsung to bring in quite a considerable change in design to mark such a milestone and remain ahead of the competition.
The big question is how Samsung will continue to juggle the two product families of the Galaxy S and Galaxy Note. The audiences are slightly different in how they prioritize what they want on their device. Both want great design and technology, but while the Galaxy S users put design first, the Galaxy Note users put tech First.
With the Galaxy Note 8, we started to see very strong similarities in the design language which makes me wonder how long these separate families can be justified. Even from a technology perspective, we see a fast adoption cycle of a technology launching in the Note in late summer and then coming to the S in the following spring. Right now the only difference between the Galaxy S9+ and the Note 8 is really just the S Pen.
Will Samsung be able to drive design innovation on the Galaxy S 10 while at the same time deliver differentiated technological innovation with the Note 9? Here, I am not questioning Samsung’s capability to deliver both; I have confidence they can. My question is a portfolio question around how Samsung will do that in a way that does justice to the Galaxy S10 but keeps the Note 9 technologically ahead. Apple does not have this issue as everything is called an iPhone which simply means prioritizing models versus families of products.
As for now, there is enough in the new Galaxy S9 and S9+ to get consumers to buy, especially if Samsung is clever in creating excitement around the new features both online and in stores.