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BW Businessworld

In All Directions

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By now those who saw it will have recovered from the forced and peculiar Broadway-style show that was the launch of the Galaxy S4, Samsung’s flagship for the year, the 5-inch smartphone to give Apple a headache, the bane of Sony and HTC. Investors, customers and the tech media were unanimous in one lament ­­­­­­­­­­— they could have done with a new look and perhaps something by way of a revolution. Seen instead by some as an iteration over the Galaxy S3 (which apparently sold about 50 million), the S4 caused a ripple of disappointment, prompting rival HTC to gloat over the lack of innovation, at least in design. But make no mistake, the S4 is no mere blip on the mobile landscape. With its release, Samsung is showing where it’s headed. 
 
First direction. It’s clear that Samsung’s focus was not on design. While they won’t ignore essential ergonomics for a minute, the materials used and the look remains the same. This is because they’re looking at scale and durability, they say. And usability. HTC may have the more beautiful phone, but it’s struggling to produce them for a multitude of reasons. The S4 has been empowered with the highest specs there are, including an octacore processor and a 13MP camera. But the real work has been on the software, to the extent that Samsung has been accused of having a bad case of featureitis. Why would one want to interact with a phone with a finger lifted off instead of  going that extra millimetre and just touching it? Or resort to scrolling a web page with one’s eyeballs?

Well, perhaps it’s much the same as why one wants to drop a phone onto a charging pad instead of taking the small effort of pushing the little cable into its place. Less effort. While we will have to see whether Samsung’s software innovations remain gimmicks or lead to interesting development, it’s not difficult to see that the Korean giant is paving the way for a future where it’s not dependent on someone else’s software — that would be Google. Just like with the Note 2 and the stylus, Samsung is building feature after feature to see what sticks and ensuring it is less reliant on Android and, in fact, is a rival to it with its own operating system Tizen, which is in the works. And that’s our second direction — total independence. 
 
And for that independence, Samsung is sowing the seeds of a whole ecosystem of its own. It’s getting into music, iTunes style, with Samsung Hub. It’s getting into gaming with the launch of a new game pad. It’s working on a smartwatch which will bring some of the one-glance stuff from the phone to the smaller screen. It’s also working with a whole set of accessories such as the S Band which you wear to sync with the health apps on the phone, having your activity tracked day and night. There are other fitness accessories such as a heart rate monitor. And this is only the beginning — more accessories will inevitably join these in a possible build-up of an ecosystem in which apps, the phone and its army of sensors and add-ons work together. 
 
With that, the smartphone is a far cry from something that used to just make calls. The aim — not even thinly disguised — is to get into every part of your life that matters. The smartphone is to be a “life companion” making everything easier, more efficient and enjoyable. 
 
Whether any of this will pan out as planned remains to be seen. In technology, there is no certainty, specially these days when fortunes can change in the blink of an eyelid. Smartphone growth itself is thought to be on the cusp of slowing down. But it won’t be for lack of trying. 
 
With all of this, Samsung is consolidating its own future. For us users, the privacy nightmare, already a complex mess thanks to Facebook and Google, gets even more incomprehensible as data about our every moment is being generated and used for something or the other. With the smartphone being able to “see” users via a camera all the time, there’s not much that will remain unknown. But, ready or not, here it comes.

mala(at)pobox(dot)com
Twitter: (at)malabhargava

(This story was published in BW | Businessworld Issue Dated 22-04-2013)