Samsung’s latest flagship smartphone, the Galaxy S8, makes its debut this week. Here’s what you need to know about the week’s biggest technology launch.
1. How important is the Galaxy S8 to Samsung?
It’s incredibly important. Samsung is the biggest smartphone maker in the world, selling over 300 million smartphone last year and accounting for one in every five sold. But following the Galaxy Note 7 battery fire debacle it was narrowly overtaken by Apple in the fourth quarter of 2016. Chances are that Samsung will bounce back into the top spot this quarter anyway, but it still needs the Galaxy S8 to be a success, because rival Huawei is coming up quickly.
Gartner Research VP Annette Zimmerman told ZDNet that Samsung needs to act fast: “They definitely need a new flagship product to maintain their position. We definitely see one of the strongest contenders here is Huawei.”
Huawei has been delivering smartphones on a par with those from Samsung and Apple and adding high-profile partnerships like Porsche and Leica with the aim of becoming a global brand. If this continues we could see a three-way tie at the top of the smartphone market between Apple, Samsung and Huawei.
2. Is the Galaxy S8 the beginning of the end for black slab smartphones?
Maybe: Samsung has certainly stolen a march over Apple recently when it comes to design. The Galaxy S6 and S7 both came with curved-screen versions, and if the rumours are true the S8 might come with one as standard. That’s not to say the wraparound screen adds a huge amount of new functionality, but it looks good and shows a confidence in industrial design that’s nice to see when most smartphones are boring blocks. Expect to see rivals (maybe even Apple) adding curved screens to more devices, even if we never quite get back to the insane variety of devices we saw back in the feature-phone era.
3. Hello Bixby: But does anyone really want a digital assistant on their smartphone?
Probably not: Siri and Cortana and Google Now are already crammed into our smartphones, but are barely used because we’re more comfortable talking on our phones than talking to our phones. And yet the Galaxy S8 adds another digital sidekick called Bixby.
Where digital assistants do seem to be popular is in the home, where Amazon’s Echo with its Alexa assistant is making a lot of the running. That could give Samsung an opportunity, because it has already said that it plans to make Bixby available across more devices. If Bixby can tie together the smart home and the smartphone via appliances like washing machines, fridges and microwaves, that could give Samsung a big advantage.
4. Does the flagship phone matter anymore?
Yes: It’s true the gap between the Samsung and Apple’s top-of-the-range handsets and mid-range devices continues to narrow: mid-range phones have most of the capabilities that the high-end phones had a couple of years ago, and the functionality that’s exclusive to the flagship phones (like mobile payments) isn’t something that most people want to use anyway.
And increasingly the mid-range is the new battleground. According to Gartner, the average selling price for mid-range phones is actually going up, not down as you would expect. People are starting to spend a little more money on those devices because they offer good technology at a good price.
But high-end phones are still a growing segment, with healthy margins — something that’s lacking in much of the rest of the market. Also, as the smartphone market reaches saturation vendors will put more effort into persuading people to trade up to premium devices.
5. Is there any innovation left in smartphones?
Maybe: Apart from the curved screen, there are suggestions than the Galaxy S8 will pack an iris scanner as well as the fingerprint scanner, which moves to the back. Unlocking your phone with a glance is cute, but is it really the innovation that smartphones are crying out for? Virtual reality in phones is still at an early stage, but apart from that it’s hard to see what the next big jump forward will be.
“Upgrading regularly is something that is in danger because we don’t have the huge technology leaps any more. The replacement cycles are lengthening,” noted Gartner’s Zimmerman.
6. What does all this mean for the iPhone 8?
Even more pressure to get it right. Once the Galaxy S8 is out, attention will inevitably switch the next version of the iPhone — presumably the iPhone 8, presumably arriving sometime in the autumn. A successful launch piles more pressure onto Apple, and there was already plenty of that, considering the iPhone 8 marks the tenth anniversary of the original iPhone. Samsung has already managed to tweak its basic Galaxy design with the introduction of the curved screen: can the iPhone really continue to look the same?
ZDNET MONDAY MORNING OPENER
The Monday Morning Opener is our opening salvo for the week in tech. Since we run a global site, this editorial publishes on Monday at 8:00am AEST in Sydney, Australia, which is 6:00pm Eastern Time on Sunday in the US. It is written by a member of ZDNet’s global editorial board, which is comprised of our lead editors across Asia, Australia, Europe, and the US.
Previously on Monday Morning Opener: