Sorry, but Samsung has not taken Apple's innovation crown

The Galaxy S 4 shows that both Samsung and pundits confuse features with innovation

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Without such game-changing innovation for a few years, the "what have you done for me lately?" tech industry yearns for something else to stir the excitement. Samsung is as close as we have. After all, it is pushing the Android platform beyond Google's vision, adding smaller-scale innovations (I'd call them inventions) such as the S 4's ability to use the LED sensor to detect gross motions, including hand waves above the screen, for touchless gestures. Ironically, Apple pioneered that innovation in the iPhone; that's how it knows to answer a call when you bring it to your face. Samsung just found more uses for it. Samsung was also inventive in using the LED as a beam for bar codes for older 2D scanners, such as those used for coupons at grocery stores.

In defending his claim of Samsung's innovations, Borg cites those inventions, and I agree -- Samsung deserves kudos for them. Of the Android device makers, Samsung best understands that software and services are what users want, not just hardware. But I don't see those inventions as sufficient to take the innovation crown from Apple (even if you believe Apple has relinquished the title since Steve Jobs died, which I do not).

For the record, Borg's thinking is more nuanced than his blog post indicates. We talked after he posted his story, and he clarified:

If you define innovation (in smartphones) as the introduction of new technology bundled with software that exploits technology to provide new capabilities that can fundamentally change the human/machine interface, then I think Samsung has excelled in this arena, whereas Apple has lost momentum. That's not to say that they can regain it again, and plenty soon, but they really need to consider the frequency of the system updates, and Tim Cook's apparent obsession with refinement over taking new risks. ... The innovation mantle is more fleeting than Apple would like to admit, and Apple is fading.

That's a fair critique of Apple, but most of what Samsung is doing is copying Apple: Media store, check. Wireless streaming, check. Cloud syncing, check. Media server, check. Unlike Apple, whose services work across OS X, iOS, and often Windows, Samsung's clones work only on some models, not even across all Android or all Galaxy devices.

User experience should define features and innovation
The Galaxy line's featuritis is not innovation, says Global Equities' Chowdhry. In fact, he calls it an "irritation," a "hodgepodge" of capabilities that differ from device to device and aren't really integrated across devices -- a problem that the Android world has faced both across and within vendor offerings since the beginning. Chowdhry also blasts Samsung for not starting with user experience, but instead acting like a hardware vendor and piling on features, just like the featurephones of yesteryear that befuddled so many people and ended up being used only to make voice calls.

He is particularly critical of the IR-based face movement detection that has enraptured the blogosphere. That feature stops a video from playing when you avert your eyes from the screen. Chowdhry says the constant start and stop will be highly annoying, as people glance away when someone speaks or to reach for their popcorn. He says Samsung has fundamentally misread how people use video: "It's a lean-back experience, a multifunction experience, yet Samsung assumes you keep your eyes glued to the screen."

That all adds up to a bad user experience. It's also why his conversations with more than 40 attendees after the Galaxy S 4 reveal found that no existing Galaxy S III owners were particularly thrilled with the incremental updates in the S 4 and no iPhone users were tempted to switch: "Only BlackBerry users said the S 4 was great."

I don't want to take away from Samsung's efforts to advance its increasingly distinct version of the Android platform. Samsung is being inventive, and not just with hardware. Apple has had its own usability flaws, such as Apple Maps. But that doesn't make Samsung the king of innovation.

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