AH Primetime: Samsung's Hopes The Note 4 Can Save It's Sinking Sales

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Samsung Unpacked 2014, Episode 2.  Many of us, Samsung-loving and not, heard or read about the invitation to the press and media for the Korean manufacturer’s fall show before IFA in Berlin this year.  But we already know what is coming.  We already know that it will show us the Galaxy Note 4, with its higher resolution screen, its better processor, its improved feature set, faster network connectivity, and all of those old tricks from an old dog like Samsung.  Don’t get me wrong here, though,  I love Samsung products; all except my current device have been Samsung’s, even going back to the days of 2006, with my single-screen flip phone.  Times have changed and so have mobile phones.  But Samsung has seemingly stopped changing, and that’s been causing it some trouble lately, shown off nicely in the second-quarter reports that came out in the recent past.

Samsung, coming into 2014 was the king of mobile, outselling Apple and every other manufacturer and ruling many international markets, but the hold has slipped and loosened on the market it once controlled with the flick of a wrist.  The spring of 2012 introduced the biggest change in aesthetics in Samsung’s products, with the Galaxy S III, and the previous release, fall of 2011, with the introduction of its top-tier, productivity-oriented Galaxy Note, whose fourth iteration is expected, stylus in tow, this September.  The things in the smartphone world that Samsung has had an impact on, both large like using dual quad-cores to create an octa-core chipset and small like simply keeping a micro SD card slot on their phones.

First, let’s cover the current status of Samsung.  From the second quarter reports, we know that Samsung is becoming less popular in China, and the local manufacturer, Xiaomi, is rocking Asia like a ship in a typhoon with its comparable specifications and markedly discounted pricing.  Meanwhile in India, Samsung’s once-encompassing force is being attacked and rerouted in the form of the Gurgaon, Haryana, India-based Micromax, who offers better and more localized product appeal, and consumers pay less because they’re buying lower specced, lower-priced phones that fit their needs better.  Those are just two, and they’re highlighted a lot, but consider you own city, your home town, your college, high school, university, work place.  What device do many of the people you live and work with have?  You might see the average, if not declining, number of iPhones in white, black, and gold, and a shrinking number of  Galaxy S 4s, perhaps a few LG G2s, maybe a G Flex somewhere in there too.  You probably see some folks still with their basic calling-texting phones because they have no need of smartphones.  You could also see the folks around you holding an HTC One, this year or last year’s, with its metal body, just like the iPhone.  And that’s a feature that gets brought into this ordeal as well: materials.

Samsung has historically and still today chooses to use polycarbonate (specific type of plastic that’s tougher than something you’d pull off a soda bottle) and chrome finishes to manufacture and house its devices.  That may be fine, and it is with me, since I know that plastic is better for allowing telephone signals of various types, frequencies, and bandwidths to pass through, giving overall better reception.  People call for metal because plastic is cheaper, and found in cheap things (knock-off iPhones from China, non-manufacturer car body parts, and the like) and people know that Apple has claimed its title as a ‘premium manufacturer whose brand and devices scream quality’, using aluminum in its iPhone, Macbook, and iMac lines of products, as well as their keyboards, mice, and trackpads.  And Since HTC, a small company by comparison, stole everyone’s attention last year with its 70%-metal One smartphone, people have asked ‘why hasn’t Samsung, if they’re so great and haves so much money from profits, used metal in our phone housings?’ and that’s a fair question.  Metal is costly, and since Samsung makes millions of devices each year, some of which (and an increasing number, as you may recall) are being left unsold in storerooms and shops in countless countries.

Samsung needs to change, and people have shouted on the Internet in various forms, from forum posts to blatant YouTube videos, for the change.  But I think people are chasing after the wrong change for the times and situation.  See, if Samsung just made a metal phone, which is what the rumored Galaxy Alpha looks to be, but keep the same look, the same often-gimmicky and unused features and quirks, as well as the same general Android overlay that we know as Touchwiz, people would claim that they just put the problem in a metal home instead of plastic.  Many people that just want a different material might be happy and quiet down, but the geeks, the people like me, like my coworkers, and like you, if you read this far (congratulations, by the way) would want more.  We’d rag on the design, the non-distinct ‘Samsung-phone #’.  And that’s what needs to change: the image of Samsung’s devices.

What made people rejoice during the reign of the Galaxy S III was that it was almost ovular, whereas many devices were and continue to be rectangles of varying thickness and corner-roundings.  The HTC One, both years, as well as the LG G series of devices are praised for design and material choice but docked points for laggy or lousy user interface, while people either love or hate a Samsung device as a whole.  Samsung’s devices have been and become the same device in different sizes. Listen, I love Samsung’s choice of unifying its design language, making many of their phones similar enough to be counted as part of the GALAXY family, and the GALAXY Note line is unique with its stylus from the top-tier GALAXY devices like the S5 and S5 LTE-A.  But the argument stands that Samsung has taken Apple’s unification of the OS and applied it to hardware instead, so transitioning between devices is seamless and feels like the same devices and experience, just sped up and resized.  And that’s the problem Samsung faces.  They have hit a wall in their design roadtrip.

But their new fall flagship, the Galaxy Note 4, could make people rethink Samsung.  Many in the tech-savvy world online view the CES and springtime releases from Samsung as fine and dandy, offering new devices from last years’, but still many more pay attention to the fall release, when you get to see Sony, Samsung, Apple, and others compete for your attention and phone-buying dollar.  Samsung has much riding on the Note line, and even more riding on the Note 4.

Let’s recap before we go into what needs to be changed.  Samsung knows how to make and redesign a device, shown two years ago with the S III and three years ago with the original Note.  But they also know how to keep on making a device once it’s been redesigned: pick any Samsung device released in 2013 and compare.  Sad but true: Samsung has reused design language to the point of dropping sales and market share.  The IFA show and the launch of the Note 4 could either show the world ‘We’re Samsung, and we listened; here is the redesigned, reimagined, Galaxy  Note 4′ or “We’re Samsung, this is IFA, and this is our Galaxy Note for this year’. And that’s really it.  Samsung has to recognize what their problem is, because we as consumers tend to want the same thing that we don’t get, year to year: faster, more-screen-lees-bezzle, higher-quality, and experience improvement(s).  Samsung hasn’t come through on some of those in the past year, but they could at IFA.  What do you think, what one single thing, does Samsung need to do to their devices, all of them, to make them sell like they used to?  Let us know what you think.