Compared to the rumors leading up to the show, the real Galaxy S 4 isn’t much different. It looks almost identical to its predecessor, but with a bigger display in nearly the same chassis, a faster processor, a better camera and a handful of new software tricks. It’s an incremental improvement to what is already one of the most popular phones in the world. It will, without a doubt, sell in great quantities.
Does any of this sound familiar?
You may recall that last fall, Apple released a smartphone that the rumor mill thoroughly documented ahead of time. It looked similar to its predecessor, but with a larger display, and it had a faster processor, a better camera and a handful of new software tricks. It was not a revolutionary new device, but an evolution for the most popular (and profitable) phone in the world. It sold, and continues to sell, in great quantities.
I’m talking, of course, about the iPhone 5, a phone that some pundits quickly dismissed as “boring.” Dan Lyons proclaimed that iPhone launches aren’t exciting anymore. Wired‘s Mat Honan wrote that the iPhone 5 is amazing but also a snooze. The Wall Street Journal‘s Jessica Vascellaro stopped just short of declaring her boredom. The Telegraph‘s Mic Wright lamented the iPhone 5’s success over seemingly more exciting rivals. Phonedog’s Anna Scantlin tried to make a list of exciting things about the iPhone 5, but failed to come up with anything.
Even if Samsung’s reveal doesn’t elicit the same reaction, the Galaxy S 4 is just as dull of an upgrade as the iPhone 5 was, by all the same metrics. Although Apple’s detractors like to say the company isn’t innovating anymore, it’s hard to see how Samsung is much different.
My point isn’t that the tech press treats Apple unfairly, or that Samsung’s getting a pass for following the same pattern as its rival. Plenty of ink’s been spilled about that already, and you could go in circles arguing whether the press loves or hates Apple. It really goes both ways sometimes.
Rather, the launch of the Galaxy S 4 reaffirms that boring is reality now. Over the last year or so, phones have hit a hardware plateau. Screens are now as pixel-rich as they can perceptibly be, and they can’t really get bigger without turning into tablets. The latest processors no longer provide a tangible benefit over the previous generation. Data speeds will be stagnant until wireless carriers build even faster networks.
Granted, you can find more exciting phones. The general consensus is that HTC’s One is snazzier than the S 4, with an all-aluminum chassis and an “UltraPixel” camera that excels at image stabilization and low-light photography. Compared to the S 4, we’ve certainly seen more interesting hardware designs in LG’s Nexus 4 and Nokia’s colorful Lumia 920.
But boring has its benefits. As Samsung’s Y.H. Lee told CNet last week, the use of plastic allows the company to ship at high volumes, and meet what will surely be huge demand for its latest handset. It also brings other advantages, such as lightness and durability.
Meanwhile, HTC is having troubling shipping the One, and has pushed the launch back to April in some markets. LG and Google have struggled to meet demand for the Nexus 4. As for the Lumia 920, most people just aren’t interested in taking a chance on Windows Phone. The Galaxy S 4 may not be the sleekest phone on the market, but it’s a familiar experience from a trusted brand. And when it’s time to go phone shopping, you’ll actually be able to buy one.
Significant improvements in smartphone hardware are coming, including flexible displays (which are thinner and more durable), greater power efficiency and drastically better cameras, but they’re not ready for primetime yet. And by the time they get here, it’s unclear whether the market will treat these advances as revolutionary. People will gobble up smartphones in droves as long as they work well, are readily available and are affordable.
And that’s pretty much where we’re at today with the boring, predictable Galaxy S 4. There’s no better example of the smartphone’s metamorphosis from work of technological magic to just another object — except, of course, for the iPhone.