Monday, May 14, 2012

Samsung’s climb to the top of the Android pile and why the Galaxy S III feels like a miss

Over the last three years or so Samsung has become the dominant manufacturer in the Android ecosystem, so much so that they have surpassed Nokia as the largest mobile phone manufacturer in the world. Samsung’s initial offerings lacked the wow factor that HTC and Motorola brought to the table and were quickly forgotten, it wasn’t until Samsung created the Galaxy line of phones they really got their act together and started to dominate the smartphone market.

The original Galaxy S used very high end components matched to a Super AMOLED display that still has other manufacturers scrambling to replicate. Samsung also created a line of the original Galaxy S giving exclusive styling to each of the major phone companies in the US allowing for impressive marketing for each individual phone allowing them to sell over 10 million units worldwide. The devices received favorable reviews for styling and the screen however the GPS performance was substandard to say the least and reviewers bemoaned the plastic construction and low build quality of the devices (not a huge deal at the time as very few companies used anything other than plastic) as well as the inclusion of the proprietary ‘Touchwiz’ interface overtop of the Android OS.

 In addition to launching the successful Galaxy S line they received the honor of producing the second Nexus device directly from Google to show of the new Gingerbread software. The Nexus S was based on the Galaxy S hardware with a few tweaks such as an NFC chip and a slightly curved screen, a first of its kind. While not a leap ahead of the Galaxy S line the Nexus S solved many of the problems plaguing the Galaxy line such as the GPS and the Touchwiz interface and received high marks all around save for the build quality and lack of 720p recording. Samsung had a bona fide hit on its hands and in 2011 they had to try to create a product that could top its previous success.

Enter the Galaxy S II.

The announcement of the Galaxy S II was eagerly anticipated by the tech world and Samsung did not disappoint. The SII brought a dual core processor, 4.3 inch Super AMOLED Plus display, 8 MP camera with flash and 1080p recording all while decreasing the thickness to 8.49 mm. This was a game changer. A beautiful piece of hardware with the chops to handle anything you could throw at it, the Galaxy S II was quickly crowned the best Android device and between the variants has sold more than 20 million units, twice that of its predecessor. As great as the phone is they continued to overlay Touchwiz and the build quality of the phone was still not greatly improved over the previous generation, meanwhile the competition was moving to metals, ceramics and more durable plastics.

Google again called on Samsung to create the next iteration of its Nexus line and in late 2011 at a joint press conference they unveiled the next evolution of hardware and software the Galaxy Nexus. The main focus of the event was the all new overhauled Android OS Ice Cream Sandwich and it was a huge change from previous versions. The OS was the showpiece but Samsung delivered big time with the hardware to showcase Google’s crown jewel. With a monstrous 4.65 inch HD Super AMOLED curved glass display display and no capacitive buttons the OS was the focal point but in addition to this gorgeous display Samsung used a 1.2 Ghz dual core processor, 5MP rear camera which showcased zero shutter lag, and an underlying bracing system this phone was a beast. Reviews of the phone were inseparable from the OS reviews and almost universally this phone was praised on every level, the only major flaw was the 5MP camera which was stated to be used to keep the shutter speed low, it seemed as though Samsung had crippled the camera in the Google device to keep the Galaxy S II selling with its 8 MP shooter. The build quality was brought up again with this phone and while other companies had glass, metal and ceramic materials the Nexus maintained its plastic exterior however the build quality was significantly better than the previous generation due to an internal support system as well as a soft touch backing that allowed for better grip on the phone.

Then with no unveiling at CES or MWC and numerous possible leaks the anticipation for Samsung’s next blockbuster was reaching a fever pitch. Speculation ran wild on all the specs and possible styling ranging from a squared off SII to an all-out redesign. As the time came closer it was believe that the phone would be about 4.5 inch non-pentile display with a 12MP shooter, ceramic body, full day battery and at least a 1.5 Ghz processor possibly quad core with a less intrusive touchwiz.

On May 3 Samsung had the big reveal and people were very very disappointed. It was the same feeling of disappointment surrounding the iPhone 4S, after so much speculation the actual device did not live up to the dreams. So what did the device turn out to be? Well it still is a monumental device in my opinion (though the lack of a black option irritates me). The phone has a 4.8 inch HD Super AMOLED Display with Gorilla Glass 2 (still pentile reportedly for the ‘shelf life’ of the screen), an 8 MP camera with a 1.9 MP front facing camera, a 1.4 Ghz quad core processor and a 2100mAh battery. Those are pretty impressive specs, that phone will run anything you through at it as well as lasting all day, the screen though slightly low res compared to the Nexus and iPhone is still a beast and with the Gorilla Glass will likely not need a screen protector. The specs are about as high end as you can get and certainly competitive with HTC’s new offerings. The plastic case is back which is disappointing but it does not look like any other phone on the market with lots of curves and coming in blue or white right off the bat. It is a great phone on paper just nothing mind blowing. Touchwiz has undergone a massive redesign which is slightly less intrusive but still more than I would like to see especially overtop of ICS, but there are some very cool tweaks that Samsung has made that could be useful as long as they do not tax the system too much. Smart Stay keeps the screen on for you based on if you are looking at it or not which is pretty cool, S Voice is an obvious response to Siri, all kinds of great DLNA add-ons for media streaming and for some reason a picture in picture style pop up. In addition the phone supports wireless charging, S Pebble MP3 player, pen input and a variety of docks/chargers as well as 50 GB of Dropbox space, double that of HTC’s offering. Overall Samsung has created a very comprehensive package that could be very enticing to the end user. If this phone came from any other phone manufacturer it would have been deemed a success right off the bat but companies such as Samsung and HTC are held to a higher standard than most and people were expecting that little extra to push the phone past the competition instead of putting it at the same level. If you look at the phone without knowing the history behind it you can see that this phone is a spectacular device that will likely dominate the marketplace similar to the iPhone 4S scenario because really the only people that are disappointed are tech lovers that have been eagerly anticipating this release while the general public has no preconceived notions of this phone and will be excited by its looks and features.

I do believe that Samsung needs to take some strides to improve the materials used for its phones and take design to another level to continue to dominate the market in the future or its competitors will take over. Currently however I think Samsung will have another monster on its hands with the Galaxy S III with its fairly conservative styling (compare to Motorola) and mile long feature list this should be an easy sell for service providers that want to offer something other than the iPhone.
Note: In the interest of full disclosure I have owned the Galaxy S Captivate, Nexus S and currently use the Galaxy Nexus as my daily driver.

Friday, May 11, 2012

MWC 2012 (Wrote this a while ago and just found it)

Mobile World Congress (MWC) is upon us again and as usual there are quite a few new releases from the major manufacturers (please note I am not in Barcelona and my comments are based on information from various tech sites such as The Verge and Android Central). The strongest showings this year seem to have been from HTC, Asus and Nokia.

HTC has finally taken stock of their phone company and decided to release fewer devices leading to an overall higher quality. HTC has unified its branding with the HTC One series devices each identified by a superscript letter. This rethink of HTC’s strategy seems to borrow heavily from the current king of Android, Samsung with its Galaxy line of hardware. The HTC phones launched at MWC bring back the focus on beautiful design and great products HTC has previously been known for, however I still have a problem with their “Sense” overlay. When Android first came out it was not as polished as its competitors in terms of the user interface and HTC created a dazzling UI that patched quite a few holes left by stock Android. Successive iterations of the Android operating system created solutions to many problems that “Sense” solved and over time “Sense” became bloated causing great devices to suffer from poor performance as resources were redirected to the proprietary skin. The bloating of “Sense” was painful to watch from the outside however it allowed newer Android users safety from what many considered an ugly UI. Android 4.0 has completely redesigned the UI and now in my opinion in looks superior to any proprietary skin that could be placed on it, which is why I do not understand the newest iteration of the “Sense” brand. Up until this point skins helped to cover a UI only nerds could love with some eye candy at the cost of performance and now once we have a more mature platform that anyone can enjoy HTC has decided that the look of Android 2.3 is the future of their line of devices. HTC has stripped out the new docks at the bottom of the screen and replaced them with what looks to me to be a reproduction of the dock found in previous Android versions and most prominently in Gingerbread.

Asus is very highly regarded in the tech industry for their great computers and has created a strong presence for itself in the tablet market with the innovative docking tablet the Transformer Pad. Asus has started to think even further out of the box on its creation that was announced last year and finally come to fruition this week, the PadPhone. Asus has created a smartphone that docks with a tablet which in turn can dock into a keyboard which when combined create a megazord  device with 9x the original battery life of the smartphone while increasing the productivity aspects found in Android. The phone itself looks fantastic and appears to have very little skinning overtop of 4.0, the tablet/keyboard docks also look very similar to previous outings by Asus and I think this could be a viable competitor to a traditional system. This concept is very interesting and I think we will see a trend towards docking devices like this over the next few years as we move further into the post-PC space. As more and more OS’s are merging with their mobile counterparts it makes sense to have one device that can be used in many different ways. As much as I like the concept of the PadPhone I still enjoy having the physical separation of my phone and other devices even though I would like my information to be available across my devices, maybe that is going to be out of fashion but for now I enjoy having multiple devices.

Nokia has been working hard to create fantastic Windows Phone devices and in just one quarter has become the largest Windows Phone manufacturer, their presence at MWC has been very significant to say the least however a phone they announced for a dying platform is aiming to be the belle of the ball. Nokia shocked the media at MWC with a brand new Symbian device that has a 41MP camera. Let that sink in 41MP. Now forget that because in reality this will not be a 41MP shooter, it will be more like a 5 MP on steroids. In the digital camera world more MP means a sharper image so long as the size of the lens can accommodate all the extra pixels. On a mobile device the sensor for the camera is not nearly big enough for anything much larger than 8-12 MP as it is simply too many for clarity. What Nokia has done here is created a sensor that will incorporate about 7 pixels into one to create the equivalent of a 5MP shot, however this will create for some absolutely stunning pictures. Obviously the 41MP part is a very clever bit of marketing as people will see it and think more is better but this camera will still be better just not for the reason the end user has in mind. My biggest question is why put such great technology on a platform that has been left to die? I realize that it will help sell those phones but last I heard Nokia was planning to be all in with Windows Phone, why not stick this sensor on one of those phones and see how quickly it raises the profile of the entire OS and brings proper marketshare to a critically acclaimed system?

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Thoughts on Fragmentation

Fragmentation is a term that is thrown around a lot in regards to the Android operating system. It basically means that there are many different versions of Android running on various phones and tablets that take away a general cohesiveness across the platform. The various manufacturers of Android devices often take many months to push out the new versions which causes unrest and general unpleasantness in the community. In the early days of Google’s mobile OS the releases came often twice a year creating large gaps in the ecosystem, recently however the development has slowed down so that there is only one major release per year that coincides with the announcement of the newest flagship Nexus device. The Nexus program is meant to be a platform for Google to show off Android as they see it and allow developers a standard device to work from that receives updates directly from Google HQ. This program is very similar to the way that Apple works with the iPhone, releasing one device a year with the latest OS and updating the previous devices shortly after (which is why we do not hear a ton about fragmentation within the iOS community). Another version of fragmentation within Android comes from the various manufacturers ‘skins’ that accompany virtually all releases except for the Nexus line of phones. Most of these skins offer usability improvements so that the consumer has an easier time using the product and to distinguish itself in the market. These skins create larger slower systems that often detract as much as they improve Android and creates confusion in the market. I read an article once speaking about the fragmentation of Android and found it really hit me as brilliant, the skinned versions of Android were in themselves distinct OS’s that do not reflect what Google is trying to implement. If you consider each skin overtop of Android as its own OS (which based on looks and certain functionalities they may as well be), the amount of fragmentation is considerably less. Currently the only phones with Android 4.0 are the Galaxy Nexus and the Nexus S, the maximum for other phones right now is 2.3 which covers a large majority of Android devices on the market, and is the highest number for all skinned Android phones currently. With a slowed down release cycle the amount of fragmentation that accompanied Android 2.3 has been the lowest it has ever been, however with the release of 4.0 we are sure to see that fragmentation rear up until all manufacturers have released their versions.

To increase release cycles and decrease the issues people have with fragmentation Google and their partners need to change the way they operate. I have one thought that could greatly reduce the amount of complaining about fragmentation even if it doesn’t actually solve the problem, and that is to include a “Vanilla” version of Android on any phone for those who want it. Part of the waiting game associated with manufacturers updates is the implementation of their proprietary skin and approval from regulators, if all of the partners offered a Google approved Vanilla build there could be an update for those interested much quicker than if it was to be released with the skin overlayed. This does not change the fact that drivers and regulations still have to go through approval and the software still has to be tested to ensure its compatability with the software but it does take out the step of retrofitting a proprietary UI. This would also satisfy many hardcore Android fans with giving speedy builds and stock Android however it would likely detract from the Nexus program itself.

I myself am a firm believer in the Nexus program and currently own devices that are updated by Google without any sort of overlay as I view the stock Android as the most usable and pleasing version (I also enjoy getting the latest and greatest in updates and software). In my opinion this is the only true Android and it is relatively free from fragmentation and always up to date (just like iOS).

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

What Google needs to learn from Apple

What Google needs to learn from Apple.

Release flagship product once a year, create a premium product, add powerful apps in house.

Release flagship products once a year.

Google is starting to get on track in terms of proper releases for Android. The Nexus line is released once a year with the new Android OS which is perfect in keeping interest high and fragmentation low just like iOS. Small point releases keep the OS moving in between major releases and keeps people from grumbling too much about lack of updates. I wouldn’t be surprised to see a 6 month product staggered cycle with Nexus phones in the fall/winter and Nexus tablets coming in the spring/summer similar to the release cycles of the iPad and the iPhone. Right now it looks like Google has learned this part of the equation at least with the launch of their Nexus line of phones (including a glitzy launch party, maybe next time launch it from North America though).

Create a premium product.

Google is a little behind on this one mostly due to the fact that it is at heart a software company. Google must partner together with manufacturers to bring any ideas for its products to light and this may cause part of the less than premium lines we have seen. It is my understanding that for the Nexus program the Android team chooses the requirements and picks the manufacturer that it believes will create the best product with those internal components, however it does not seem to have much input into the physical design of the device. So far Nexus phones have echoed other product lines from the manufacturer with slight changes but with the same materials. I do not think that my Galaxy Nexus is by any means flimsy or cheaply made however it does not feel quite as substantial and premium as the iPhone 4S. Google needs to ensure that the company producing the Nexus devices uses top of the line premium materials to properly battle the folks at Apple (this will be especially important with the rumoured Nexus tablet due out later this year). I think Google is starting to consider this especially with the new focus on beautiful software coming into play they will want their hardware offering to reflect the same design principles.

Add Powerful Google Produced apps.

This category is a little bit of a double edged sword as Google does have some incredible apps that are included with their phones, however there are certain apps from Apple that just blow people’s minds.  Applications such as Gmail, Chrome (Beta), Maps and Navigation, Calendar and YouTube are all great apps and have been hugely successful and are much better on Android than on iOS. Apps such as iPhoto, Garageband and the iWork/iLife suite are just lightyears ahead of what stock Android has to offer. In order to compete with the fanfare that surrounds Apple products Google needs to put some energy into creating products that can compete on the same level as these wonderful software applications. Google is at a disadvantage in this area as most of the mindblowing iOS apps from Apple are versions of already successful OSX programs that Apple has just refined for a mobile device. Google products tend to be created from scratch and take ages to appear in public and almost always enter a perpetual Beta program. If Google wants to catch up to Apple in the tablet space it needs to focus on these sorts of apps that become very significant on a larger interface than on a phone screen.

Following these suggestions may not be enough to take down the mighty iOS but it will certainly create a more fierce competition in the tablet market which will be interesting to watch as Google releases Jelly Bean and Key Lime Pie.