The 'Galaxy S5' problem

The Galaxy S5 has just launched to what can best be summed up as a collective "that's nice..." from the media and the industry at large. Much as last year's Galaxy S4 was referred to as the Galaxy S3S, this year the Galaxy S4S (Galaxy S3S2?) jokes are already in full swing. Apple suffers from this as well. The reason "S3S" or" S4S" are jokes at all is because every second iPhone delivers what's mainly an internal upgrade to the first, designated by Apple's addition of an "S" to the branding. It's a reflection of the times in which we live. All the major operating systems have already rebooted. The smartphone revolution that began in 2007 has stabilized into a steadier if less exciting evolution. And that has consequences. Last year, shortly before Samsung's Galaxy S4 event, I wrote about the "iPhone 5s" problem. Now Samsung and the Galaxy S5 have a much bigger problem, even if it is months away... the iPhone 6.

Here's an encapsulation of what I thought at the time would be the iPhone 5s problem:

  • The biennial of iPhone/iPhone +S had become predictable, which made their sales seasonal.
  • Competitors had learned to counter-program Apple, both by releasing in the spring when previous iPhones were old and new iPhones were not yet on the horizon, and by targeting bigger updates for the S-years to gain even more ground.

The iPhone 5 was almost completely re-engineered, including a taller screen, yet because it was still a rounded rectangle, it was considered boring. Knowing that what followed would be an iPhone 5s, a more iterative update, it seemed like Samsung would take advantage. It seemed like Samsung would use that predictability and the open window to really take it to Apple. To really leap ahead.

Only they didn't. They released the Galaxy S4. It was a perfectly serviceable phone, if not to my tastes. But instead of taking advantage, instead of leaping ahead, Samsung fell into the same pattern as Apple — iterating on their already best-selling smartphone.

What's more, phones that arguably did take bigger risks, like the HTC One and Nokia Lumia 1020 sold next to nothing compared to Samsung and Apple. They discovered this essential truth: Like major motion picture sequels, while everyone clamors for something new, what they really want is more of the same.

Look no further than the iPhone 5s. It brought 64-bit to mobile and made biometrics mainstream, yet it was the addition of a gold finish that really seemed to charge the masses...

The end result was, not only did Samsung not do as well as some expected, Apple did better. And that brings us to today, and to the Galaxy S5.

The Galaxy S5 brings a fingerprint reader and a gold color option to a market where Apple was-there, did-that 6-month ago, and by most accounts did-that better. There's also no 64-bit option, at least not yet, and Apple's had that going on 6-months as well. Samsung's focus on health and their tie-in to wearables have long been rumored as iOS 8 and iWatch features, which means differentiation will be tough at best. Most importantly, where Samsung played the larger sized display card years ago, Apple still has that card to play. And it's a big one. It's also only a few of the potential features we suspect right now.

Here's where I'll quote Tim Cook quoting Steve Jobs:

There are some interesting things about the Galaxy S5, from the water resistance to the heart-rate monitor to the camera software and more. Yet it's already being called the Galaxy S4S, it's horrendously design-challenged, and we're still 6 months out from Apple's traditional fall launch window.

Momentum is a powerful, subtle force. Who's seen as innovative, who's seen as trendy — it's something that ebbs and flows over the span of months and years. Right now, today, there was no Samsung slam dunk. There was nothing to increase the pressure on Apple. If anything, it took some of the pressure off, even as it left the door wide open and perhaps even raised interest in what Apple's going to do next.

And that's it. That's the biggest problem facing the Galaxy S5.

This isn't an S-year for Apple.