Samsung caught more than a few off guard with its US launch plans for the Galaxy S III, but primarily for what it didn’t do. Whether it was a variant for ATT, Sprint, T-Mobile or Verizon, the American versions had no arbitrary screen size bumps. No keyboards. Not even the customary navigation key changes that Samsung has implemented in US-spec Galaxy phones to avoid uncomfortable comparisons. Instead, the Korean electronics giant was dictating almost the entire device launch strategy to the carriers, which sounds a little familiar. While some would be cynical about it, it’s really the sign of a rethink at Samsung that’s giving the company the courage it needs to keep ahead — and which could trigger a wider change not just at carriers, but within the Android ecosystem as a whole.
Whatever your preference in smartphones, most credit Apple for turning the traditional manufacturer-carrier relationship on its head. The five-year deal with ATT for the iPhone may have limited provider choices and bombarded a 3G network with more traffic than it could handle, but it also put control in the phone manufacturer’s hands and, in some ways, the customer’s — as much criticism as Apple faces for iOS’ limits, they pale in comparison to what some carriers inflicted before 2007. If you’ve been a cellphone owner for long enough, you’ll remember the Bad Old Days when US carriers would gleefully disable Bluetooth or steer Internet access through poorly-written custom portals, all in the hopes of eking out a few more dollars for using the carrier’s special services. Phone designers that simply bent to carriers’ wills paid the price for not asserting any real control. Many would say HTC was denied its potential for years as carriers masked its involvement and told it what hardware and software to build.
For the longest time, Samsung has been almost too willing to take that last route of treating the carrier, not the customer, as the master. The Galaxy S and S II certainly weren’t the company’s first phones (or its last) to reflect that whatever-you-want-sir philosophy, but they drew attention to the problems it created. It’s hard not to remember the brief ruckus over the Fascinate’s initially mandatory use of Bing. The US Galaxy S II variants’ upgrades to Android 4.0 aren’t even starting until June 11th due at least partly to that extensive carrier tweaking, leaving the very real possibility that owners won’t get a taste of the current Android OS until after the next version, Jelly Bean, shows its face. Even the Galaxy Nexus, a phone that’s supposed to be getting timely updates and represent Google’s pure vision, saw its share of irked users after Google and Samsung let Verizon have a say in the software.
Samsung has mustered at least some strength to tell carriers that customers buy a phone for the phone
As of this writing, we’ve yet to see what carriers will do under the hood to the Galaxy S III outside of the unavoidable 3G and 4G network swaps. From the virtually identical designs and software we’ve seen so far, though, it’s clear Samsung is taking a stand. The phone will look this way; it will present these apps and widgets out of the box. Samsung has mustered at least some strength to tell carriers that customers buy a phone for the phone, not for carrier exclusives that seldom help the experience.
Assuming Samsung has kept as much control over its flagship as it looks, the move likewise sends a message to carriers that they can’t use Android as a crutch, as a way to reclaim the overarching control that Apple denied them. The networks, whether they’re American or otherwise, may just have to accept that any good phone maker deserves to set its own agenda. Trying to play designers against each other like bargaining chips hasn’t worked out so far: Verizon’s use of Android as a foil to the BlackBerry (which, incidentally, has been tightly bound to carrier policies) nearly led to a platform monopoly until the iPhone showed up.
Android as a whole reaps the rewards by proxy. Fewer one-carrier phones could mean fewer delays in getting updates out the door. As Android’s poster child, Samsung carries some influence and could push HTC, Motorola and others into focusing more on quick, coordinated launches that keep the experience consistent and prevent the frustration of waiting for months to get a carrier-tuned phone that’s really no better than the original. HTC’s One series is also on that path, but its smaller share doesn’t quiet wield the same force as a company that makes more than a quarter of the world’s smartphones.
There’s still the real risk of a gotcha moment, like a blocked app or bloatware. For that matter, it wouldn’t be a surprise if Samsung’s efforts still amount to rolling the boulder up the Sisyphean hill that is the telecom industry. But it’s no overstatement to say that the Galaxy S III’s American launch represents a noticeable shift in the balance of power. Whether it’s Samsung that’s standing up or the carriers backing down, it’s at least a nudge towards a world where we don’t have to worry about what device compromises we’ll have to accept because of our choice of network. That’s something nearly any smartphone owner can get behind.