On Friday Samsung New Zealand will take the wraps off its new Galaxy Note 9 phone. The main event is on Thursday in the US.
By comparison the Auckland affair will be low key.
Almost every time Samsung or Apple holds a major phone launch people say ominous words to the effect that: “there’s a lot riding on this”.
That’s because there often is.
Galaxy S9 disappointment
Samsung’s Galaxy S9 phone, which launched earlier in the year, was beautiful. But it failed to sell in anticipated numbers. So far it has sold 20 percent less than the S8 managed a year earlier.
This means the company needs the Galaxy Note 9 to succeed. In this case success means it has to sell in numbers close to last year’s Galaxy Note 8.
Two flops in a row would be a disaster.
We’ve been here before.
Last year there was a lot riding on the Galaxy Note 8. That’s because one year earlier the Galaxy Note 7 flopped because of its unfortunate habit of exploding. You couldn’t get an aeroplane without someone reminding you of the danger.
Coming back from a public relations nightmare of that magnitude was a feat. Phone buyers were forgiving. At the time it was clear that Samsung had used up a lot of good will.
Another exploding phone would destroy the company’s hope of being a high-end player.
Which brings us to the Galaxy Note 9. To sell it has to offer a more compelling value proposition than phone’s from Samsung’s rivals.
This means two things. It needs to offer buyers considerably more phone than the Galaxy Note 8. A better camera isn’t going to cut it.
The market rumour is that Samsung will offer more storage than in any other phone. It’s not clear that this will be enough to get people to upgrade.
Maybe that’s what the market wants. More likely, it will be what a market segment wants.
Samsung’s threat is not Apple. There’s little traffic between Android and iOS phone users.
The real problem is rival Android phone makers. In New Zealand this means Huawei, Oppo and Nokia. There are other rival brands overseas
Rivals ready to pounce
Each of the companies mentioned has phones that are arguably either the equal of Samsung’s models or close enough that it makes little difference. But their models sell for hundreds of dollars less than Samsung’s.
Which tells us exactly what could give Samsung the 2018 hit phone it so badly needs: drop prices.
The Samsung brand carries enough weight to justify $100 or more than a Huawei. It’s hard to justify spending hundreds just to get a me-too phone with a posher brand name.
Galaxy Note 9 has to be more than great
The Samsung Galaxy Note 9 has to be great. More important, it has to have a tempting price tag.
There are reports of revolutionary Samsung phones in the pipeline.
One model is foldable. Next year’s tenth anniversary Galaxy S10 is rumoured to have a fingerprint reader built into the display. Apparently some people are excited about that.
The Galaxy Note 9 has to be more than a place holder en route to those models. If it is another flop, the brand will lose its lustre and Huawei’s foldable phone and innovative finger reader will relieve well-heeled Android phones of their savings.
Samsung reported a second-quarter operating profit of US$13.4 billion. That’s up 5.7 percent on the same time as a year ago, but behind analyst expectations. Revenue for the quarter dropped 4 percent year-on-year.
The company blamed the missed estimate on weak Galaxy S9 phone demand.
Shipments were 20 percent lower than for the Galaxy S8 during the same period a year earlier.
Unpopular Galaxy S9
The Galaxy S9 went on sale in the first quarter of 2018. It looks set to be the least popular of the Galaxy S models since the S3 in 2012.
While the S9 is arguably the most powerful Android phone on sale, the basic design has changed little since last year’s Galaxy S8. The most noticeable improvement is a camera that takes slow-motion video and better low light pictures.
That’s not proved a compelling reason for S8 owners to upgrade. It’s not much of a step up from 2016’s Galaxy S7. And, to many, the S9 looks ordinary compared to Apple’s iPhone X.
Samsung faces two challenges. After years of fast growth, the phone market is flat or even declining. Many consumers have learned there is little reason to upgrade phones every year or two and are hanging on to older models for longer.
Yet the biggest threat to Samsung comes from Chinese phone makers who threaten the Korean company’s market lead. Huawei and Xiaomi, hard to find in New Zealand, are Samsung’s fiercest rivals.
All three companies make similar Android phones. In many cases, they offer much the same specifications and features for hundreds of dollars less than Samsung models.
Chinese companies now also challenge Samsung by making cheaper televisions and displays.
Huawei doesn’t report separate figures for its phone sales. Yet the company saw a 15 percent rise in revenue for the first half of this year. Last week the company said it is on target to sell 200 million phones this year.
Samsung will launch a new “flagship” phone model next week. This will be it’s most important model during the run up to the end of the year, normally the busiest time for phone sales.
Samsung’s $180 DeX Pad is a docking station that turns a Galaxy S9 or S9 phone into a desktop computer. On paper it looks like a good idea. In practice it’s less useful than you might expect. At least not for most people.
The DeX Pad is a lightweight black plastic box that lies flat on a desk or table top. It has a cheap, flimsy feel. This is in stark contrast to premium finish of the Galaxy 9 phone. You plug a Samsung Galaxy 9 or 9 phone into it using the USB-C port. This also lies flat, which is a potential minor problem as we will see.
There are two USB 2 ports. You can use these to connect a keyboard and a mouse. A HDMI port connects the DeX Pad to a screen. There’s another USB-C port for the DeX Pad’s power supply. It comes with a New Zealand-style wall plug, but the cable is on 1 metre long, which may not be enough for many people.
The box is a little bigger than the Galaxy S9 phone. It measures 84 by 158 mm. When it sits on its little rubber footpads, the height is around 15 mm plus a small lump with the USB-C phone connector. That adds another 15 mm to the height.
On its own, the DeX Pad weighs 135 g. Together a Dex Pad and a Galaxy S9 phone weigh around 300 g. The two weigh less than, say, an iPad or a small, light laptop.
So all good to go? Well no. The DeX Pad is meaningless without a screen and you really need a keyboard to get much value. Carrying both along with the various cables and power supplies is far harder than taking a tablet or a laptop. Even if you know you can expect to find a suitable screen at your destination, you still have to carry a satchel full of kit.
When you get to your destination it takes time to hook everything up. The inventory of parts you need to carry includes phone, DeX Pad, keyboard, two cables and, perhaps, a mouse. Which mean there’s risk of leaving something behind. Taking a laptop or tablet would be far less trouble.
If you’re OK with all that, DeX Pad has another drawback: Android.
Whatever your opinion of Android as a phone operating system, it is not the best desktop OS. Windows, MacOs or Linux are better in almost every conceivable circumstance. The DeX Pad Android desktop OS feels a little like ChromeOS, but Google’s browser-based operating system would have been a better choice. Indeed, any of the OSs mentioned earlier would give you a better and more productive experience.
That’s not to say Android needs to be awful on the desktop, but Samsung has not done enough work on the software user experience. For example, some apps appear in portrait mode windows that mimic how they would look on a phone. Others have lots of white space. Almost nothing makes the best use of the screen real estate.
The good news is that most apps popular with IT departments and the enterprise users likely to choose Dex Pad now have decent Android versions. You could run, say, Microsoft Office or G-Suite this way.
Microsoft Word functions as expected. But performance is poor. Even the cheapest Windows 10 PC has less lag than a Galaxy and Dex Pad. At times the cursor jerks slowly almost painfully across the screen.
You can choose to use the phone screen as a touch pad instead of a mouse. It’s just as jerky and at times unpredictable. Likewise the double-tapping to click can be tricky when the touch pad function decides to be unresponsive.
Because the phone lies flat on the desk, you can’t use the fingerprint reader. So if you leave the Dex Pad long enough for it to go to sleep, you have to lift the phone in its cradle and turn it through 180 degrees to use the face recognition. There’s little that is downright bad, but lots of small niggles add up to a less than stellar user experience.
Don’t even think of running a fast moving game on this combination. Of course that’s not what Samsung designed the device for. The target is enterprise users.
Samsung DeX Pad verdict
Samsung’s marketing suggests a Galaxy S-series phone owning consumer might choose Dex Pad instead of buying a desktop or laptop computer. They would be disappointed.
Dex Pad would be handy if you’re in sales and turn up at a customer’s office to present with, say, PowerPoint. It might be useful if you stop overnight in hotels where you can plug the Dex Pad into the TV set. Beyond that there is not an obvious market for the product.
Say you shuttle between, say, a home office and a company office. You would need screens and keyboards sitting waiting at both locations. You’d be better off buying two computers.
And that’s the problem. The idea is not silly. After all, phones are powerful and dominant. And the phone business is short of fresh thinking. One day a Dex Pad-like product might arrive and change the face of personal computing. We’re not at that day yet. The execution lacks too much for Dex Pad to be a serious PC alternative. For now it is likely to appeal to a tiny niche.
There are signs the lack of innovation in recent times is hurting phone makers.
Samsung is expected to post its smallest profit growth in more than a year in the second quarter, as lackluster sales of its premium Galaxy smartphones overshadow its highly profitable chip business.
Analysts expect Samsung’s smartphone sales to drop in the April-June quarter, following a more than 2 percent drop in the previous quarter as consumers flock to cheaper models from Chinese rivals such as Xiaomi Corp.
Samsung’s lead over Apple in the global smartphone market is under pressure after the U.S. firm’s iPhone X exceeded market expectations while a lack of technological innovation dogs Samsung offerings.
“Functions (that) Samsung’s mobile phones have are not attractive enough for customers to spend more money on,” said Song Myung-sup, analyst at HI Investment & Securities.
It’s not just Samsung, other phone makers are rubbing up against the same issue. We’re on the top, flat part of the innovation S curve as far as the current generation of phones are concerned.
Phone makers go on improving cameras and bumping speeds. Yet there hasn’t been an improvement that makes a significant difference for at least three years. A better camera, smaller bezel or a library of childish emoji is not innovation, it’s window dressing.
For most people that means no pressing reason to upgrade.
At the same time, cheaper phone brands have caught up to the point where they now offer all the essential features at a lower price. In some cases that’s a much lower price. If you own a three year old Android phone from a top brand like Samsung you can swap it for better technology and pay half what you paid for your existing model.
We’ve been here before with the PC and no doubt we’ll be here again. Stable designs are not necessarily a bad thing for consumers, but they kill hardware company profits.