Samsung’s flagship smartphones have changed a great deal over the years. I was covering the industry when Samsung released its first Galaxy S phone, and I have tested each and every Galaxy S and Note-series device that has been released ever since. What started as a quirky little handset has matured tremendously and split into two categories of devices. One focuses on fun and the other enhances productivity, but both are now immeasurably better than Samsung’s initial effort with the Galaxy S, which debuted in 2010.
But as good as Samsung’s smartphones have gotten, there are still areas where they fall painfully short of the competition. And now, with the Galaxy S6, it appears as though Samsung may finally have done something about it.
When Samsung first broke into the smartphone industry, its strategy was to be all things to all partners. It released different versions of each phone for different carriers, ensuring that its brand gained precious little traction in the process.
The user experience Samsung created atop Android was also a mess. It wasn’t intuitive, it wasn’t attractive and it couldn’t hold a candle to Apple’s iPhone.
And so Samsung made a few key changes.
First, it cut back on the customizations. No longer was there a “Samsung Captivate” for one carrier and a “Samsung Fascinate” for another — not to mention the “Vibrant,” “Infuse,” “Epic 4G,” “Stratosphere,” “Metrix,” “Proclaim” and “Indulge,” all of which were different versions of the Galaxy S in North America alone.
Instead, Samsung built a brand: Galaxy. And it spent billions upon billions of dollars to market that brand.
Next, Samsung focused on its designs and user experience. The company was stuck with Google’s Android software, but it had the freedom to customize that software however it wanted. Initially, its work with Android was awful and everyone crowed about how much better the software on Apple’s iPhone was.
Samsung’s products are unique and original in many ways. The company is also a trendsetter in many ways. But if you think Samsung didn’t shamelessly copy Apple’s iPhones for several years, you’re delirious.
Samsung rebuilt its entire mobile experience around iOS. If you don’t believe your own eyes after having used Samsung’s devices between 2011 and 2013, there are plenty of documents like this 132-page internal guide to ripping off the iPhone that prove it.
Apple was even awarded more than $1 billion in courts because Samsung stole its various designs and technologies. Of course, $1 billion is a small price to pay for a smartphone empire the size of Samsung’s.
But the pressure from the media, from vocal consumers and from Apple’s legal team mounted, and Samsung eventually went its own way. It stopped relying mainly on Apple’s designs and features, and started focusing more on its own. Samsung also refocused its marketing efforts away from a barrage of Apple attack ads.
In some ways, this made its smartphones even better than before. Its latest crop of Galaxy phones is undoubtedly its best yet. But it also made people stop caring as much.
Samsung’s new smartphones were no longer exciting, and there was no longer a very public war with Apple to fan the flames. Now, Samsung’s profits are plummeting at an alarming rate as the iPhone 6 and 6 Plus slam Samsung’s high-end phone business, and low-cost China-based vendors continue to pummel Samsung’s entry-level and mid-range phones, which make up the majority of its shipments.