It's Mobile World Congress week, and many vendors are showing off the new smartphones and tablets they want you to buy this year. In all the hoopla, there are only a few key developments to focus on -- and plenty of marketing hype to beware.
Galaxy S5: A minor revision in the Galaxy S line
The big news is the Samsung Galaxy S5, the successor to the disappointing Galaxy S 4. (Yes, the space in the name is gone.) The S 4's sales declined after a big start, with many users preferring the still-available S III. The reason for the S 4's slowdown was the poorly integrated extra Samsung features, such as the ability to track eye movement to know when to pause video or scroll a page for you.
The S5 has an updated physical design: The new bezel is more reminiscent of the original Nexus 7, and it's accompanied by more megapixels in the rear camera to support 4K video capture, a faster processor, a USB 3 port instead of the common MicroUSB (time for new cables!), a heart-rate sensor in the case (health monitors are the current fad), and a water-resistant design that lets it survive a short-term dunking. That last one is a great idea.
But S5 has the same software as the S 4, and it's unclear whether Samsung has refined them to work better. The S5 also runs the latest version of Android, 4.4 KitKat, but retains the Samsung user-interface modifications.
The big new thing in the S5 is an integrated fingerprint reader, a clear clone of what Apple introduced in the iPhone 5s in October 2013. But Samsung's fingerprint reader can't authorize purchases in the Google Play Store, just in websites using PayPal. Reporters who got a hands-on demo of the S5 in Barcelona say the fingerprint reader is hard to use and unreliable. Such poor clones of Apple innovations are a sad, old story at Samsung.
Ironically, in announcing the S5, Samsung's mobile CEO, J.K. Shin, declaimed that customers don't want "eye-popping technology" for its own sake but instead prefer useful improvements. This is the same Shin who for the last year or two has been extolling the virtues of cool technology. He clearly learned a lesson from the S 4's subdued reception.
Anyhow, if you like the S III or S 4, you'll like the S5 when it ships in April. If not, it won't turn your head.
Nokia's 'Windroid' smartphone is not for you
As long rumored, Nokia revealed the Nokia X series, a smartphone trio based on version 4.1 of Google's Android Open Source Project (AOSP). It has a decidedly non-Android user interface that mixes elements from Microsoft's Windows Phone and Nokia's low-end Asha, and uses five Nokia services instead of their Google counterparts: Here Maps, Mix Radio (a Pandora-like service), app notifications, mobile payments, and Nokia Store (so you can't get Android apps from the Google Play Store).
Existing Android apps that don't use these services can run as is on the Nokia X, once made available in the Nokia Store. Apps that use these services will need to be modified to use Nokia's services instead of Google's.
The X line also has apps for Microsoft's OneDrive, Outlook, and Skype services. Pundits like me have been calling it "Windroid" due to Windows Phone similarities and the fact that Microsoft will gain control of Nokia's mobile business in March.
This raises the question of why Nokia is bothering with a "Windroid" device when Microsoft still hasn't given up on its poor, struggling Windows Phone platform. Surely, Microsoft will kill it in favor of Windows Phone. Microsoft's announcement this week that it is gutting its license fees for Windows Phone shows it intends to go after the same market as the Nokia X and other AOSP phones, which sell very well in poor countries.
I believe the X line won't be long for this world, nor will Nokia's other platform, the Asha. Not only is AOSP a risky platform due to shifts in Google's strategy that are effectively orphaning AOSP, but manufacturers like China's Xiaomi use AOSP now for more powerful smartphones at prices comparable to the midline Nokia X's.