Galaxy S9 flop - what went wrong and what's next for Samsung?

This article may contain personal views and opinion from the author.
Galaxy S9 flop - what went wrong and what's next for Samsung?
The world’s largest smartphone vendor is also the only other key mobile industry player apart from Apple that’s been able to consistently make money over the past few years. But Samsung’s recent prosperity is largely connected with a thriving semiconductor business rather than strong Galaxy S9 or S8 sales.
Granted, the market as a whole is stagnating, and you could hardly call the iPhone X a runaway hit. Then again, considering the swift growth of companies like Huawei, Xiaomi, and Oppo, including in the Western high-end segment, simply blaming an OEM’s rut on the industry “climate”, trends, or longer upgrade cycles feels lazy.

How bad are things?

The short answer is not too bad. Not yet, and definitely not compared to other veterans, past leaders, and innovators. HTC’s smartphone division is practically dead and buried, Sony’s not doing too well either, while BlackBerry and Nokia are slowly coming back from the dead… in name only.

As far as the Galaxy S9 is concerned, unofficial estimates put shipment figures at around 10 million units for the year’s first quarter, and an extra 9 mln or so during the April – June 2018 quarter. If analysts are correct, Samsung could still add 12 million or so unit shipments this year on top of the current 19 million tally, ending up with over 30 mln by the time the S10 drops.

Once again, that’s a pretty solid figure. Sony, for instance, sold less than 15 million smartphones worldwide last year. HTC’s numbers are too laughable to even discuss. Huawei, which is clearly emerging as Samsung and Apple’s biggest threat, boasted 6 million P20/P20 Pro shipments last month, previously setting a target of around 10 mln in total.

Basically, the GS9 and S9+ are the most popular Android handsets in the world (by a landslide), although they can’t compare to the iPhone X, 8 and Plus. And that’s just one side of the problem. The other, more vexing concern has to be the negative trend of the Galaxy S family.

A short history lesson

Anyone here remember the Galaxy S3 (or rather the Galaxy S III)? Released in 2012, the Android Ice Cream Sandwich-based 4.8-incher looked nothing like its 4.3-inch predecessor, racking up a massive grand total of 50 million unit shipments. Back then, there was no second model to help either, and the following year’s Galaxy S4 did great business as well, reportedly hitting 40 million unit sales.

Things started (slowly) going downhill in 2014, although 2016’s Galaxy S7 and S7 Edge scored an estimated combined tally of 55 million units. It may feel weird that the radically redesigned Galaxy S8 and S8+ failed to connect at the same level as their forerunners, but perhaps the timing wasn’t right for the “Infinity Display” revolution.

What now?

Since the S8 didn’t exactly set the world on fire, it must have crossed the minds of some Samsung executives that the largely iterative Galaxy S9 would suffer the same fate. Or an even worse one. But that’s the problem with traditional upgrade schedules and “routine” releases. You have to do them, whether you actually have something to upgrade or not.
Don’t get me wrong, the S9 and especially the S9+ are great phones. But what exactly about them could have made a GS8 or even S7 owner instantly want them? And I mean desire them so badly that they would ignore the sky-high prices, unimpressive battery life, and impressive competition?
The point is the Galaxy S9 was probably doomed from the get-go. Ever since Samsung failed (again) to implement in-display fingerprint recognition technology, it should have become obvious for the company that there was nothing truly compelling about its latest flagship product.

The Dual Aperture cameras are phenomenal, but the Huawei P20 Pro has three phenomenal shooters. Everyone’s doing the Infinity Display dance, Bixby is a fiasco (cancel it already!), and clearly, there was plenty of room for a larger battery. If Samsung keeps going down this road, withholding features and key upgrades for no real reason (apart from releasing two flagships a year), this hole the company is entering will get bigger and bigger until it eventually swallows the chaebol whole.

BUT the good news is all those Galaxy S7 holdouts are likely to want something else soon. Something bigger, better, fresher, and “celebratorier.” Unfortunately for Samsung, the company may not have a fanbase as devoted as Apple yet.

In other words, assuming there are 10 or 15 million people in the world still owning a GS7 or S7 Edge, no one can guarantee they’ll instantly switch to the Galaxy S10 when they get the chance. Some of them could go with a five-camera Huawei P30 instead. Or perhaps one of those eccentric bezelless devices from Oppo or Vivo. Or even the iPhone X Plus. It all depends on how bitterly these folks have been disappointed by the Galaxy S9. And of course, how great the S10 will be. You can still turn this around, Samsung, but any additional misstep could badly hurt your prospects of dominating the mobile world going forward.
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