Samsung focuses on broad appeal over innovation in latest smartphone and watches


Samsung's new Galaxy S5, which comes in gold, black, white and blue, was unveiled in Barcelona on Feb. 24. (Courtesy of Samsung/Courtesy of Samsung)

Samsung unveiled upgrades to several of its marquee products Monday, making significant improvements, but no innovative leaps, to its smartphones and other popular devices.

And that is exactly what Samsung had planned. The tech giant has spent years trying to shake its image as a “fast follower” rather than a thought leader. But now it is positioning itself as an everyman alternative to Apple’s iPhone, a move some industry analysts question as Samsung struggles to keep its dominance in the smartphone market.

At the Mobile World Congress — a major mobile trade show in Barcelona — Samsung co-chief executive J.K. Shin emphasized that rather than trying to push the boundaries of innovation, consumer feedback is the central tenet of Samsung’s design philosophy.

“People choose meaningful and relevant improvements for day-to-day use,” Shin said. “What we have learned is surprising, simple: Our consumers do not want eye-popping technology or the most complex technology.”

For the latest phone, the Galaxy S5, Samsung focused on small improvements to its camera and processors. The company also has added practical features to make the phone water-resistant and extend its battery life. Samsung also added a fingerprint sensor — a feature Apple introduced in its latest phone — to let users unlock the phone, protect sensitive information and pay for some items.

Samsung also announced two new models of its smartphone-connected watch, the Gear 2 and Gear 2 Neo, and a new fitness band, the Gear Fit, to continue expanding its move into wearable devices.

According to the International Data Corp., Samsung shipped about one-third — 31.3 percent — of all smartphones in 2013. That leads second-place Apple by more than 15 percentage points. But slower growth has led the Korean tech giant to warn investors of a coming profit dip.

Samsung shares have dropped about 9 percent over the past three months in trading on the Korea Exchange.

Focusing on core features is a safe move for the company as it looks to reboot softening smartphone sales. But dropping efforts to out-innovate its main rival will not help the firm solidify its brand and its phones as an alternative to the cult of Apple, analysts said.

“They’ve got the numbers, but they’re not going to win over the hearts by having this kind of launch,” said Peter LaMotte, who leads the digital team at the Washington communications firm Levick.

Samsung had made strides to raise its profile, holding a dramatic Radio City Music Hall event last year, complete with actors and an orchestra. But without the major innovations to justify the pomp and circumstance, LaMotte said, that kind of event falls flat.

Now, however, Samsung risks going too far in the opposite direction.

“It’s the exclusivity factor,” LaMotte said. “The way Samsung markets product and brands is much more of the mass-appeal mobile device. They’re launching products more like Microsoft than like Apple.”

Related stories:

Samsung, Nokia, Sony and others make big announcements at Mobile World Congress

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Hayley Tsukayama covers consumer technology for The Washington Post.
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