"It has been designed to make our lives and all our life tasks that much easier," Will Chase, Samsung's strong-voiced emcee, said as he introduced the Galaxy S4 to a packed house at Radio City Music Hall Thursday night.
For the next 50 minutes, Chase narrated a mini-Broadway performance. He explained the Air Gesture feature, which lets you wave your hand over the phone to swipe, as a cast of young women danced and drank presumably-fake wine. He explained the dual-shot camera feature as a dad took a photo of his tap dancing son on stage. Then he explained S Translator as a faux traveler used it to translate Chinese. All this to demonstrate the countless new features of the phone.
Samsung's new phone has gotten more attention than any Android phone, and the focus has been on its many software features. The headliners have, of course, been the tilt control (the mislabeled "eye-scrolling" feature), the wave gesture control and the enhanced camera functions. These features are different, Samsung wants the world to know. The iPhone doesn't have them and neither do the hoards of other Android phones on store shelves.
But the Galaxy S 3 tried to do the same thing last year. The phone had features like Smart Stay, which worked with the front-facing camera to determine whether you were looking at the phone. It had a number of innovative camera features, like Share Shot, which let you sync your friends' Galaxy S phones together to share photos. And remember Pop Up Play? That was what let you watch an HD video in a small box while you surfed the Web.
The phone quickly became the best-selling Android phone on the market, but not because of those aforementioned features. In fact, most of the people I know who own the Galaxy S 3 don't use those features. It was something I warned about in my review last year.
"I don't know what those are," a friend of mine told me when I asked her about some of those Galaxy S 3 features.
My friend and most of the Galaxy S 3 owners bought the phone because it was the best Android phone at the time, with a very good camera, nice screen and a fast processor. With the S 4, Samsung has improved those core components, but has placed its focus on the software features. I dare you to watch last night's presentation: five minutes on the hardware specs and design and 45 minutes on how the features can make a bachelorette party, trip to Brazil and your child's dance performance better.
Many of those features seem interesting and some actually seem valuable (though I'm not sure about the waving). But they aren't valuable if users don't know how to find them or aren't aware of them in the first place. In the past, Samsung's never been very good at user education or ease of use with its more complex features. Its weakness is one of the biggest strengths of its fiercest competitor -- Apple.
With the Galaxy S 3, features were buried in menus. Samsung spent its marketing dollars hitting Apple with clever attack ads. (According to the latest numbers, Samsung spent $402 million dollars to market the S 3 in the U.S. last year.)
The Galaxy S 4 has the opportunity now to pull in an even greater mainstream user base, especially with all eyes on the new phone. But in order to do that, Samsung has to stop pretending we're all watching a staged show and has to actually start telling, showing and instructing users on how the phone can, in the words of the all-knowing emcee, "make our lives and life tasks that much easier."