This weekend, Samsung finally took the wraps off the rather lovely new S9 and S9+. They have all the headline-grabbing features they need to be top contenders in the smartphone world: huge glorious screens, incredible cameras and benchmark-topping specs — but they have one massive competitor that may just sink them, and it isn't the iPhone. It's the Galaxy S8.
The problem with making really great phones — and I think we can all agree the S8 was a high point for Android in 2017 — is that they don't vanish when you release another one. Worse: they get cheaper. Samsung did such a good job selling us all on the infinity screen, camera chops and fast wireless charging of the S8 and S8+ that it's left a lot of people wondering why they shouldn't just buy one of those, especially now the price has dropped.
And when you look at those prices, you can really see the temptation: the new phone costs £739 for the base model and a cringe-inducing £869 for the Plus, while the S8 will be going down to £689 and £779. That's still really expensive for a phone that came out at the beginning of last year, which rather suggests Samsung is aware that it may hobble its new release if it cuts the old one too far. Presumably it's hoping people will just shell out the extra £50 or £90 for the latest model, particularly since for most people it'll be split over an 18-month or two-year contract.
The second problem for Samsung is that the S9 doesn't feel nearly as distinct from the S8 as the S8 did from the S7. The S8 led the way for mainstream phones to slim their bezels to almost nothing, and as a result, the S8 left the S7 looking distinctly 'last year'. The S8 doesn't have the same problem with the S9: it's actually quite hard to tell the two phones apart unless you look very carefully at where the fingerprint sensor is (still on the back, just in a slightly more sensible place) — or you've chosen this year's Lilac Purple shade. Even then, once you've got it in a case (and for the love of everything, put it in a damn case), it's going to look pretty similar.
It's easy for those of us in the warped bubble of tech to look at a new product and compare it with the latest releases from the other big brands to evaluate how well it'll sell. But that's not how normal phone-buying people work. They want a great phone, yes, but they also want holidays and meals out and to be able to pay their crippling housing costs — to quote Tim Cook, they "don't give a rat's about being first" to have something. And realistically, how many of us could tell the difference with our bare eyes between an amazing photo taken on the S8 and a slightly-more-amazing one on the S9? Come to that, could we tell it from the S7? Or the iPhone 6? I suspect fewer of us could than we'd admit to.
And there's a third problem: a whole load of people bought the S8 between its release and now, and even the most tech-hungry among them have been given very little reason to trade up to an S9. Yes, it's a great phone, but unless your S8 is faulty, you're not going to pay the premium to upgrade early. There's just not enough difference.
Hopefully none of this will impact the sales figures for the S9 too drastically, but if the phone does turn out to sell less well than you'd expect from its very positive reception today, the reason probably isn't Apple, or Huawei, or Sony and the rest. It's the ghost of Samsung past.
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