Samsung’s Crisis of Design 2.0

Samsung unveiled its second attempt at wearables, along with its latest flagship phone, earlier this week at MWC. I was not impressed and I am growing more confident that Samsung not only has another “crisis of design”, but will also soon face major headaches from competing Android OEMs.  I think we are on the verge of a new phase in mobile phone hardware: Samsung competitors will finally be able to find a footing and begin to attack the giant.  Meanwhile, I suspect Apple has already placed Samsung in the same drawer as Microsoft; irrelevant. Tim Cook and company is marching to a completely different beat.

1) The Galaxy Fit looks awful. A curved AMOLED touch screen with a huge piece of plastic on its underside attached to a Modern Glam (plastic) watch strap.  I’m having a hard time seeing what is so “beautiful” or “pretty” about Samsung’s new fitness device, to quote a few easily amused tech bloggers. The company’s business model is not dependent on good design and few would suggest otherwise, but I struggle to understand how people can look at the Galaxy Fit and be even mildly impressed by such a horrendous product. One tech blog went so far as to say the Galaxy Fit is a “smartly designed fitness band”.  It’s a piece of curved glass set on top of a bunch of plastic with an extremely awkward user experience and interface.  Smartly designed?

 2) Samsung Galaxy S5.  Samsung’s flagship phone now comes in gold and has a fingerprint scanner. While the joke would typically stop there and many would say “copying a good artist is a pretty good strategy”, Samsung didn’t even copy well.  The gold color is the wrong shade of gold (Modern Glam gold?) and the fingerprint scanner doesn’t work.   I really don’t think I need to say much more about Samsung’s new flagship phone. I suspect Samsung will unveil the real Galaxy S5 this May?  Interestingly, Apple was very quiet this week versus last year’s PR push leading up to the Galaxy S4 launch.  I wonder why…

3) Samsung is a fish out of water without new Apple inspiration.  Samsung is struggling.  The easy smart phone growth achieved by simply shipping an alternative to iPhone (bigger screen) is drying up and with no clear path to additional revenue or earnings growth, the company amusingly jumped into wearables. The Galaxy Gear was downright disgusting, while the Galaxy Fit isn’t far behind. Samsung likes to throw around the “we give consumers what they want” meme and I am left wondering who was asking for something like the Galaxy Gear or Galaxy Fit?   Samsung is throwing a lot of poop against the wall and desperately hoping something sticks. While some may label such a business strategy as acceptable, I have my doubts that consumers are going to stand by a company that is willing to ship products that merely represent different batches of wall poop.

4) Samsung’s credibility is taking a hit. Last year I noticed a few of my acquaintances made the switch from iPhone to Samsung.  The usual reason given for such a move involved wanting a change or simply being bored by iPhone.  Interestingly, on follow-up discussions in recent weeks, these switchers are now regretting their move away from iPhone due to Samsung’s plastic and subpar build quality.  More than a few people on Twitter tell me the same thing about friends or family being disappointed with their Samsung phones. The amount of negative feedback caught me by surprise.  Interestingly, only a few hours after introducing the Galaxy S5, Samsung rumor blogs were talking about a new Samsung phone coming out in May that actually wasn’t made of cheap plastic. Have we reached a point where even Samsung realizes the “not an iPhone”  plastic gold Urban Glam option probably isn’t going to do much in terms of winning converts from competing platforms?  Consumers are starting to notice what Samsung is actually shipping and the grumblings are getting louder.

5) Samsung competitors are foaming at the mouth.  The long-standing joke is that the best Android phones available in the market (never a phone made by Samsung) don’t sell well because no one cares about anything other than Apple and Samsung.  I think that may change. After this week, I am becoming confident that consumers are going to stop being passive and begin seeking out alternatives to Samsung in the form of HTC, Sony, Nokia, Lenovo, or countless of other Asian OEMs, all of which are making significant progress in shipping attractive phones at attractive prices (I would include Nexus, but Tony needs to help Google rework distribution). In terms of hardware specs, most of these phones are already at parity and with several Samsung competitors now focusing on hardware design; consumers will simply have fewer reasons to instantly turn to Samsung. Whereas in the past, Samsung might have been the default choice for Android, I suspect that lead will start to slip. In addition, Samsung recently announced that they will reduce their advertising and marketing budget as mobile phone profits decline (not exactly the best timing for such a move). While smaller mobile hardware companies individually lack the ability to compete against Samsung, and just the thought of going up against Samsung can scare many executives into a cold chill, I think each competitor can take a bite out of the giant which can collectively create serious damage. To succeed against Samsung: 1) Focus on branding 2) Save or raise as much capital as you can and throw it into marketing 3) Narrow your distribution focus 4) Figure out why someone should buy your phone. The challenge is significant and Samsung will not stand still, but 2014 is the year. Wait any longer and limited resources may not allow another fight in the future.  

Bonus - iWatch Implications from Galaxy Fit. The iWatch will not look like the Galaxy Fit and the iWatch will certainly not operate like the Galaxy Fit. The best way to think about this would be envisioning a small table in Jony’s design lab with various iWatch prototypes. The Galaxy Fit version (simple rectangular curved piece of glass positioned on a plastic watch strap) would be instantly cast off as a no, if it even would be positioned as a possible prototype in the first place.  I highly doubt the iWatch will include a strap/buckle or a thick piece of bulging glass. The device won’t depend on an awkward user experience where you have to rotate your head and arm just to look at the device. In summary: Look at the Galaxy Fit and you now know what the iWatch won’t be.