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Is Samsung overloading the Android market with devices?

Posted: , posted by Michael H.

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Is Samsung overloading the Android market with devices?
To paraphrase Jeff Jarvis, the world is becoming a mass of niches; a one-size-fits-all approach doesn't work so well any more... at least as far as software and content is concerned. The idea is that it's better to excel at a specific thing than to be not-so-great at a lot of things. If you want sports news, you don't turn on your local news station, more likely you go to ESPN. If you want to listen to random music, you may not choose the radio which repeats the same songs on a loop, you use Pandora where you have more control of the experience. We have specialized options for almost everything these days. Unfortunately, that idea hasn't scaled well to hardware, mainly because of the extremely high costs. 

Whereas the decision to choose Pandora over the radio, or ESPN over a local channel may not cost you anything, the difference in cost of hardware can be very prohibitive. The differences between a laptop, a netbook, or a tablet are pretty wide, both in use case and cost. Many say that the tablet has killed the netbook, but that isn't really true. Tablets have simply relegated netbooks into their proper niche: people who need a basic mobile computer, but need to be productive (and therefore need a keyboard), and may need a more traditional operating system for specific apps. The web may supplant many traditional desktop apps, but until text input on tablets can be made as easy and fast as on a device with a keyboard, that niche will continue to exist.

The trouble is that often we don't know what the niche or use case is until we have the device, which may be the reasoning behind Samsung's strategy. Many say that Samsung copies Apple's every move, but when was the last time you saw Apple offer the glut of choices that Samsung is planning to release? A large part of Apple's mystique is its exclusivity: OS X and iOS only exist on Apple hardware, that hardware is limited to a couple of options, and that hardware is kept on a strict update cycle. Essentially, Apple builds one product and expects it to satisfy everyone. Samsung is taking the Android path, which extends into the hardware: build multiple options so there is a choice for everyone. 

After the latest announcements from IFA, the Samsung Android lineup looks like this (in order of smallest screen to largest): 

(Note: for the purposes of this article, we are assuming that the Tab 7.7 will be the successor to the OG Galaxy Tab, meaning there will not be a 7" Tab. As yet, Samsung has not made it clear whether or not this is the case.)

This list of six devices may not seem too complex, but the trouble comes with all of the other variations. Not only will consumers have their choice of screen sizes, but many of the devices also have options for different sizes of internal storage, and with the Tabs there will also be the choice of WiFi-only versus 3G/4G models. So, what starts off as six choices quickly becomes about 15 different variants (not counting carrier specific differences with the S II). That's a lot of choices, and we're not sure it's necessary. Especially since Samsung has yet to show a concrete need for at least three of the devices on the list. To make this discussion easier, we're splitting up the group into the smaller three options and the Tabs.

Is Samsung overloading the Android market with devices?


The smaller options

We began this article talking about niches, because it seems niches are what most of the devices on this list are targeting. The one exception is the one-size-fits-all Samsung Galaxy S II. Other options may have similar capabilities, but this is the only true phone on the list. We'll talk about the multimedia, Internet, productivity, communications, and gaming aspects of the other devices, but the SGS2 is the only one that can be a usable phone. The International and AT&T variants of the Galaxy S II are at 4.3", while the Sprint and T-Mobile variants have screens of 4.52". So, unless clothing makers start putting larger pockets into pants, this is probably the very upper limit for phone sizes. The rule seems to be emerging that anything larger than 4.5" should fall into the tablet category rather than the phone category. Sure, the Galaxy Note is technically a phone, but the size of the device will turn off many consumers, just like the Dell Streak did. 

That is the main issue with the Galaxy Note - the size. At 5.3" and 6.28 oz (178g), it's too big to be an everyday phone, and bigger tablets offer better experiences in many aspects. Of course, we can't make a straight comparison to the Dell Streak, because of three reasons. First, Dell learned its lesson, killed the 5" Streak and replaced it with a 7" Streak, whereas Samsung seems to be getting rid of its 7" option in favor of the 5" Note and the 7.7" version of the Tab. Secondly, the where the Streak had a relatively low resolution, the Note boasts a resolution of 800x1280. Third, the Note comes with a stylus, and this may not be a small difference. 

As mentioned before, input is a problem with touchscreen devices when considering using a keyboard as compared to a soft keyboard. A stylus is completely different. That's not to say better. There's a reason why schools are beginning to forego cursive handwriting in favor of keyboard literacy classes, but pen input does have a defined niche. But, that niche is limited further by the size of the screen. It is too small for most uses by artists, and the general public doesn't care so much about annotating photos, etc. So, that essentially just leaves field reporters. The trouble is in whether or not this niche of field reporters would have any interest in switching from paper notepads to a fairly bulky, heavy and relatively expensive (at least compared to paper) device. The addition of a stylus could also impact gaming by bringing many of the gameplay elements found on the Nintendo DS to the Note, but it's unclear if this device could survive simply as a gaming device. 

The last of the small devices is the one with the most obvious place in the market, the Galaxy WiFi 3.6, which is essentially a portable media and gaming device for kids. Any adult who has tried to play certain types of games on a sub-4" device knows that it's just too small to hold comfortably. Add that to the fact that kids are the only demographic that doesn't necessarily need phone capabilities, and you've got your target for this device. The trouble here is in parental controls which are essentially non-existent on Android. Google has instituted an app rating system which helps, but in general there are very few ways for parents to control an Android device to shut down Market purchases or block certain websites. 

Is Samsung overloading the Android market with devices?


The Tabs

Determining niches and use cases for the three Tabs is far more difficult. Essentially, all three Tabs offer the same user experience. Each model has generally the same hardware specs, save for minor bumps in CPU speed, but we're trying to avoid hardware spec arguments in this piece, because hardware will always get better and better. The more relevant information for this discussion are features that change how you may use the device, or what tasks it is used for.  The only real differences are in the size of each, and in that the Tab 7.7 includes a stylus. The size differences are as follows:

  • Tab 7.7 - 7.9mm thick, 11.8oz (335g)
  • Tab 8.9 - 8.6mm thick, 16.6oz (470g)
  • Tab 10.1 - 8.6mm thick, 21oz (595g)

As a general rule, the lighter a device, the more likely it will be used as a mobile device rather than just a portable device (mobile devices can easily be kept with you at all times - phones, media players, etc. - whereas portable devices can be carried, but size makes it uncomfortable - laptops, netbooks, larger tablets.) Samsung has done an amazing job of making all of these devices thin and light, so each can be either a couch device or a mobile device. The differences in screen size won't make much difference in the experience of playing games, watching movies, or most other tasks. A larger screen will make the onscreen keyboard more useable, so the Tab 10.1 does have the best chance of crossing over from being a consumption device to a hybrid productivity device, but none will really be a full laptop/netbook replacement for someone who needs to do a large amount of typing. 

The stylus for the Tab 7.7 should add a number of interesting uses, especially once developers start making apps for it. Because of the larger screen as compared to the Note, the Tab 7.7 should find uses with artists in possibly replacing Wacom tablets in some cases, or in being a digital canvas. The stylus could also add in the same gaming features mentioned above for the Note. The larger screen size would make for a more comfortable writing surface, so anyone looking to take handwritten notes, or annotate documents may find use in the Tab 7.7. But, overall it's unclear if the market for stylus input devices still exists as it once did. 

Conclusion

Ultimately, it feels like there are too many devices vying for too few spaces in the market. As you may have noticed, the Tab 8.9 was not mentioned at all in the last section, because it feels like a duplicate. It adds nothing over any other device, and its only appeal is in being slightly smaller and lighter than the Tab 10.1.  And, the price doesn't seem to justify the difference either. a 16 GB Tab 10.1 is $499, whereas the same model Tab 8.9 has been listed by Samsung at $469. Given the hardware packed into the Tab 7.7, it's unlikely that will retail for much less than the $450 range.

If we had to make a prediction, we'd say that the Galaxy WiFi 3.6, the Galaxy Note, and the Galaxy 8.9 probably will not have very long lifespans. The Galaxy WiFi 3.6 could be a success given the right marketing, and the addition of parental controls, but otherwise there isn't much need for the device. The Galaxy S II is already a success. The Galaxy Note will likely face the same fate as its spiritual predecessor, the Dell Streak. The Note is a tweener device that won't find a comfortable space with phones or tablets. Samsung has proven the market for 7" tablets, so the Tab 7.7 should find its market, especially if developers adopt the stylus. Apple and Asus have proven the market for 10" tablets, so the Tab 10.1 is safe, but there is no reason to believe the Tab 8.9 will sell well enough to justify its existence. 

Perhaps these new devices are test devices from Samsung. They are a short walk along "if you build it, they will come". Unfortunately, that phrase just isn't true in the world of hardware. With hardware, it is always better to give concrete examples of how a device can be used. In this way, Apple has always excelled. Apple devices may find more use cases than what Steve and co. lay out, but there is always a defined market at launch. Maybe Samsung will find markets that we didn't know existed before, but right now it seems like there are too many choices and not enough uses. Samsung hasn't explained why we need all of these choices. Samsung will have to be careful to not overproduce products until the market is proven. Choice is a good thing for consumers, but there also needs to be clear benefits and variations between products, or the choice is pointless.

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