Gotta Get a Gimmick: How the Galaxy SIV’s Party Tricks Turned Innovation into a Game

s4 handsfreeanswerribs

Even as a devout lover of iOS, I have to give credit to Samsung—they really know how to endlessly market their product. In the coming weeks, I’m sure we’ll continue to see campaign after campaign of ads telling us why the Galaxy SIV, The Next Big Thing, is here.

The problem, though, is like Samsung’s ads, the SIV is big and gimmicky.

I’ve given a lot of thought to why I loathe the Galaxy line so much and I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s one of both substance and ontology. I don’t intend this discussion to be one of why you should love Apple more than Samsung, I have no intention of evangelizing iOS over Android here. In fact, while this is a discussion of a new device, it is also—in part—a contemplation of a larger problem in the tech journalism industry.

When the SIV was announced, Samsung held a strange spectacle of an event, a weird performative keynote that featured actors seemingly scooped from bad regional theatre interpreting fifties-era commercials than an off-off-Broadway spectacle. If SNL were to kick off a show like the Consumer Electronics Showcase (CES) or the Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3), the end result would resemble Samsung’s presentation.

And yet the awkward nature of the event was what made it perfect. Perfect in how the bizarre and maybe even inappropriate pitch mirrored the “killer features” of the device. The whole show, like the phone itself, is all about the gimmick.

Maybe you’ve seen this commercial. Maybe not. All the same, take a look at the touted, headlining features:

  • Dual cameras putting the photographer into the photo.
  • Touch-free controls using Air Gesture, Smart Scroll, and Air View
  • S-Health pedometer and activity tracking
  • TV control
  • Multiple exposure camera

Right, now let’s go through and list every one of those features that is new and fundamentally an innovation that Samsung has created:

Nothing. That’s right. Nothing. Not a single feature there is a hardware innovation. It’s all software. Any camera app can be written to take multiple shots and stitch them together, any phone with an accelerometer (most of them these days) can be made to act like a pedometer, and the TV remote? That’s decidedly old ground. Even S-Beam, Samsung’s would be NFC.

s4 sbeamNFC

On its own, Samsung launching a new device that is more or less all about software changes isn’t wildly newsworthy. This is, more or less, the established pattern for consumer technology. Fresh design, iteration, fresh design, iteration. That paradigm has been the model that Apple, Amazon, and other Samsung-rivals have used for some time.

So why, then, did the media and analysts go batshit bananas for the SIV? It was all about timing.

In tech news, rumors and analysis drive a lot of content. Writers and editors set their editorial calendars by trade shows, product refresh cycles. Wall Street analysts play some part in this by providing a level of speculation based on factors like supply-chain reports, anonymous industry sources, quarterly returns, and corporate investments. If you know how to weed through the garbage, you can get a foggy idea of what’s in the pipeline.

The problem is that a lot of these analysts are not interested in innovation, new technology, or great products. They’re really only interested in profit and money.

Around the time that Samsung was prepping the SIV event, tech analysts reported that Apple had cut component orders for the iPhone 5, signaling, they assumed, a decrease in demand. The same analysts were wrong, though, as proven by Apple’s quarterly earning’s call. But what happened next? Analysts drove Apple’s share price way down after the tech giant did not meet predicted profit margins.

And so for Samsung, Apple’s biggest imitator and rival, the Galaxy SIV had just been handed a blank check.

s4 remote

By this time it’s March. 2013 has seen phablets—phones with five- and six-inch screens—unveiled en masse at CES. The mobile phone design arena has become, almost literally, a dick measuring contest. And, given the enormity of CES, the take-home for local and national journalists covering the event is that people must love bigger phones. Like analysts, so many reporters stuck on assignment are just reporters. They’re not exactly wired to know the difference between a fad and a real innovation.

So here we’ve already turned a perennial corporate buzzword into a larger, marketing buzzword. It’s so innovative!

When Samsung announced the SIV, the marketing screamed profit! It fell into the narrative in the press that bigger was better, despite the more accurate reaction of “Meh,” by more reputable, knowledgable tech authorities.

While it’s a moderately decent Android device, the SIV, like a lot of other Samsung products, relies on software gimmicks rather than true software innovation.

And yes, those features are just gimmicks. Innovations can really only apply to platforms. For what the SIV is doing to be truly considered innovative, it has to be useful to more than one device or product line. It has to change the Android platform, the Android experience. The reason that Google or Apple are more likely to innovate is because they are the source of the Android and iOS platforms. They’re ground-zero for design, for development. Device manufacturers like Samsung can really only slap on bells, whistles, and paint.

Most of these gimmicks will never see actual, regular use. Take the SIV’s automatic video pausing, very few of us will ever need a video to pause when we look away from the phone to take a drink from the glass or bottle sitting nearby. How does it hold up in a turbulent plane? A bumpy road? “Cool” doesn’t mean necessary. “Cool” doesn’t even mean useful, and it certainly doesn’t imply practicality. More importantly, gimmicks don’t provide support to third party apps or accessories en-masse. That “cool” eye-tracking feature might work great in a native Samsung app, but download one and it may not even work.

Innovations are often things the user doesn’t even have to think about. They shouldn’t have to think about how many processors are in their phone, how many gigabytes of RAM are in their phone. These aren’t selling points for anyone other than geeks. Nerds. Your grandmother buying her first smartphone—and they do, let’s not pretend otherwise—doesn’t, should never, have to worry about it. They shouldn’t ever have to worry about it because when it comes to good software design, this stuff matters much less.[1]

For Samung’s laundry list of magic tricks to really be innovative, they really ought to have a smaller footprint in the device’s memory and battery-life. Like computers, a smartphone’s flash-based “hard drive” runs an operating system underneath all of the apps. This shouldn’t be a surprise. Android, iOS, Windows 8. This ought to be review, if not, then I respectfully ask that your opinion on what is innovative be withheld, permanently, from public discourse.

Operating systems take up space, every resource, every feature that’s built-in has to go somewhere. Some are very efficient, taking up only a gigabyte or so of the device’s storage, others…well, it’s not always pretty. This gives us the quickest way to spot a gimmick: ask whether the feature could easily be handled by a third party app from an app store. If yes, then we need to seriously question what the benefit of including it as a stock app/feature is.

s4 multipleexposure

The reaction to the SIV resulted in statements that Apple and (in a related but less reported way) Google no longer innovate. These are weak arguments on Wall Street’s part that will, likely, be dispelled as soon as the two mobile moguls host their annual developer conferences later this spring.

“But size matters!” scream Samsung fanboys and analysts alike. They fail to understand usability and design.

For LTE—more or less the only 4G standard that matters—to work, more space has to exist between antennae on your phone. Because different Android installations (and device manufacturer skins) require more hardware resources, early LTE phones needed not only larger batteries, but also the increased antenna spacing. How do you solve this from a design and engineering perspective? Simple, a longer and/or wider phone. They could have also gone longer and thicker, but no one does that and lives.

“But users love how their content looks with more screen real estate.” Flag this argument, we’ll come back to that. You also look ridiculous trying to hold up a device approaching the size of your face to your ear. “But who uses their smartphone to make a call anyway?”

If anyone, dear reader, uses that line as a justification as an excuse, I ask you to please smack them vigorously. If you can get away with it, more than once. Smartphone. I don’t care that you mainly send text messages, the bulk of the world still makes phone calls, even if they’re through services like Facebook, Skype, or Viber.

The content argument falls apart instantly. Responsive design, design that scales and reacts to the dimensions and nature of the device it’s being displayed on, should be the norm. It’s becoming the norm. So why does a larger screen matter? Look at eBooks, good eBooks are already designed to look great regardless of display size. It doesn’t matter if you’re on a phone or an eReader or a tablet or your 27” monitor.

The big-screen fanaticism really falls apart under usability. The beauty of the iPhone is that you can use it with one hand. That’s the reason it’s stayed the same width since it launched in 2007. Sure, maybe you can use a phablet with one hand. But not all hands are big enough or have the dexterity enough to do that. A lot of phablets look and feel like aborted tablets.

There was a time when I seriously advocated Android phones. Not even three years ago my mother and brother both had one—my dad was brought kicking and screaming into smartphones only in the last few months. Prior to the first Droid, Mom rocked an ancient Palm, then an already past-it Blackberry. It was an okay smartphone, but it exemplified everything that was a problem for early Android phones, and what has evolved into the forking we see of an otherwise open OS. Those custom skins and animations that Samsung builds into the Galaxy devices, that Amazon applies over the Kindle Fire, those aren’t doing anything to help the user.

Maybe those custom skins and interfaces look good. They undoubtedly try to route the user through the manufacturer’s own or preferred services. In some cases, this can mean using and sharing private user information without or with only loosely-implied consent. What’s more, these custom skins and environments often mean that users get new Android builds more slowly than others, if at all. Given the increase in Android malware and the steps that Google has recently taken with the Play Store to curb the problem, this should be a problem.

How many times did the words “Android” or “Google” come up during Samsung’s presentation? Notice how Samsung’s duplicating services like Android’s built-in translation with S-Translate? If that doesn’t signal that Samsung wants to build it’s own OS, you haven’t been paying enough attention. Look at the lengths at which they imitated and studied Apple.

And that might go okay for them, but having lived with a Samsung phone immediately before switching to the iPhone in 2011, I can confidently say it’s not going to end well. Samsung makes great displays, great components, and the hardware for the SIV is on the better end of Android phones. They are not, however, a software company. My old Samsung phone had this eternally annoying habit of pocket-dialing friends because the voice command button was horribly positioned on the side of the phone, next to the volume rocker. Add to that, its predilection to launch the camera for minutes on end until I noticed a sharp increase in pocket temperature. The phone often needed restarted. Eventually, it fell six inches out of my blazer pocket and died. Six inches. Not onto a sharp edge, not particularly hard. It slid out and landed face-down on linoleum. End of phone.

While the build quality might be better now, I don’t believe Samsung has earned credit for build quality or design. Frequently, their strategy seems to be one of taking a rough idea that a competitor probably did first, gimmicking it up, and tossing it at a wall to see what sticks. While a decent mid-sized phone, the SIV comes with huge trade-offs, primarily a result of Samsung’s business model. They’re not a company that sticks to the mantra of “Make a great product.” Innovation, staying power, requires vision, and their current products don’t show much of that.

Sure, you might have people who have been led to believe that the iOS or other operating systems “look stale.” That the SIV is doing something “cool and new.” Anyone want to ask Microsoft how well “cool and new” went? Windows 8 has an adoption problem.

Samsung has even brought back the stylus like it’s the best thing ever. Really? Remember, this is the crowd saying “Oh, you can use phablets with one hand.” What kind of karma sutra are you using to learn to hold a stylus and a phone in one hand?

Seriously? A stylus is innovative in 2013? I’m pretty sure you just popped the top screen off your DS and added a phone.

This faux-innovation narrative will likely soon be over. Between Google’s I/O conference and Apple’s Worldwide Developer’s Conference, Samsung’s time as some innovation Icarus will be over soon and they can go back to making 3D TVs that nobody wants and having their marketing department troll their competitors online.

“The Next Big Thing is Here.” Seriously, you have to give them credit for letting a frat boy’s bad dick-joke-in-a-pick-up-line embody their ad campaign. But then again, that kind of gimmick is their chief through-line, isn’t it?

But in the end, the blame here shouldn’t just be on Samsung. Since when is it acceptable to take the analysis of a party whose job it is to snoop through industry channels to make a profit as objective news? If we’re going to let analysts talk about technology rather than the programmers, the designers, the people that use and test this stuff every day, perhaps we should let the children of our medical professionals lead the FDA. After all, they’re connected to industry sources, too.

It’s bad enough that Samsung can’t create an original product without a gimmick, it’s worse, though, when the Fox News effect starts to take hold on our mainstream media. Pundits and personalities should not be dictating, let alone creating a narrative of events. It’s not ethical. But, then again, what are ethics anyway?

Footnotes

[1]I am, actually, really sick of arguing with old PC gamers about this. Sleeker code is more powerful than brute force. Batteries are getting better, processors are getting better, but sleeker code will always win out.

***

Zach Tarvin is an MFA candidate at Roosevelt University in Chicago, Illinois. He is Editor-in-chief of Oyez Review. More at zachtarvin.tumblr.com.

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