June 15th, 2010. That was the first time that I, along with a majority of other tech bloggers and journalists, first got my hands on a Samsung Galaxy S. I’d love to say that there was a sense of a historical moment about the event, but in all honesty, the phone market was so diverse and dynamic at the time that it just felt like yet another intriguing pocket computer vying for our attention alongside the likes of the Toshiba TG01, HTC Evo 4G, and Nokia N8. Now, with the benefit of hindsight, I want to look back on why Samsung’s phone grew into a global smartphone dynasty while all of the others faded away. I also want to consider what Samsung needs to do with the Galaxy S10 to keep its winning streak going into the future.
The original Galaxy S was a poorly disguised clone of Apple’s iPhone in terms of design, as well as a richly specced powerhouse in terms of engineering. The latter part of that has never changed, as Samsung truly pioneered the OLED display technology that’s now the default best option for any flagship smartphone, iPhones included. But the instrumental utility of brazenly imitating the iPhone is now often forgotten. At a time when everyone — including Samsung with its ill-fated Bada OS — was trying to puzzle out how to do a good touchscreen user interface, Samsung just shrugged its shoulders and popped an iPhone 3GS into the nearest copier machine. It worked.
I don’t think it’s a coincidence that every one of the top five smartphone vendors in the world today (besides Apple) started out by copying the iPhone. Xiaomi’s first devices looked like they were made on the same production line as Apple’s, albeit with cheaper materials. Huawei spent a bunch of time preempting Apple tech like 3D Touch and turning its Android interface into an iOS-like environment. Samsung was infamously sued for intellectual property offenses by Apple in a protracted and high-profile design infringement lawsuit.
But copying Apple was only a starting point, and Samsung’s most seminal Galaxy S device would come within a year of the first. The Galaxy S II was, and to this day remains, one of the absolute best Android phones ever made. If the first iteration was a harbinger, the second was the deliverer. The good OLED display became great, the forgettable camera became amazing, and the speed, performance, high specs, and unique design all cohered into a groundbreaking device.
At the time of the Galaxy S II’s release, Samsung and HTC were equals, both vying for the crown of the most technologically advanced Android vendor. HTC’s 2011 Sensation, however, was merely a good phone while Samsung’s Galaxy S II was great, and the consequent fracture that opened up between the two companies would never close again. If you want to point to a single device as the reason for Samsung’s global smartphone leadership, the S II really was it. Among other achievements, it gave Android users a flagship that felt every bit as awesome as the iPhone.
For a few years, Samsung coasted on the strength of its engineering prowess and felt a bit lost in its Galaxy S designs. I got emotional about the plasticky mess that was the Galaxy S III, and I was underwhelmed by the Galaxy S4, which just kept the bad design going. Those were the dark days when Samsung didn’t want to use Apple as a blueprint anymore, but it didn’t have its own great ideas or conviction to pursue. The Galaxy S5 was rightly pilloried for looking like a Band-Aid.
Then the Galaxy Alpha, a handsome one-off phone, came seemingly out of nowhere and showed that Samsung really cared about design — and what’s more, the phone-making giant was suddenly very good at it. Cue the excellent Galaxy S6 and S6 Edge in 2015, which renewed Samsung’s credentials as a leader in mobile photography while adding a distinctly modern aesthetic and wireless charging. Besides the Galaxy S II, I would rate the S6 as the pinnacle of Samsung’s lead over the rest of the Android phone market.
In 2016, Google turned its Nexus lineup of niche phones into the Pixel family of groundbreaking mobile cameras that just happened to be Android smartphones as well. That same year, OnePlus asserted itself as the company that builds great flagship phones for a fraction of the regular (read: Samsung’s) price. And Samsung itself was deeply embroiled in the fiasco surrounding the Galaxy Note 7’s spontaneously combusting battery.
After a deep, sincere, and nerdy apology about the Note 7, Samsung got itself back on track with a couple of competent but mostly iterative upgrades with the Galaxy S8 and Galaxy S9 series of devices. The S9, in fact, was pretty much just an S8 with the fingerprint reader repositioned to a sensible place. Samsung paid a heavy price in sales for its lack of eye-grabbing changes in 2018, and now the pressure on the company to wow with its Galaxy S10 is as high as it’s ever been.
Last year was huge for Chinese companies like Huawei and Xiaomi as both expanded their European businesses and took away sales from Samsung. Vivo launched a phone with a periscope camera, Oppo launched one with a sliding screen, and OnePlus kept attacking from a lower price tier. Even Huawei’s budget brand Honor has started 2019 with a terrific new phone that’s vastly cheaper than a Samsung flagship device.
It’s easy to forget now, but Samsung’s mobile business started out the same way that it’s being threatened now: with a ton of eccentric, aggressive innovations slapped together at a price that incumbent rivals weren’t able or willing to match. Yes, Samsung phones used to be known for being cheap and plasticky. Now they’re facing competition that’s often cheaper, but rarely worse in terms of design or build quality.
The Galaxy S10 has a lot riding on it. Samsung will have to reach back to its Galaxy S II and S6 brilliance and solidly reassert its reputation as an innovator and a leader. If it doesn’t — if the S10 is another incremental refinement rather than a major step forward — then Huawei and its ilk are simply going to surpass Samsung by the time of the Galaxy S11. ARM, the company responsible for the blueprints that go into every smartphone processor, speaks of having to deal with a “China speed” of doing business, which is characterized by contracting the development periods required for each new product by months.
Looking back over Samsung’s history in order to look forward to its future, I see a company that’s thrived in the world’s most competitive marketplace by virtue of a constant engineering and technological lead, augmented with the help of some provocative ads and the accidental notoriety derived from being sued by Apple. Though it may be dominant in the US and across Europe still, Samsung’s lead is diminishing and, unlike Apple, the Galaxy S maker has no ecosystem stickiness to fall back on. This is a company that lives and dies on its ability to push technological boundaries every year, and it hasn’t really done much of that in recent times.
Samsung’s smartphone dominance has never faced as many legitimate challengers as it does today, and the Galaxy S10 will have to be more than just a good phone to ward them off. We know Samsung can make good phones. But can it still make great ones?
Photography by Vlad Savov / The Verge