Apple reels as Samsung launches Galaxy S4?

Apple [AAPL] is reeling as Samsung introduces the heavily-hyped Galaxy S4 -- except the company isn't actually reeling as the release shows the Korean company moving to emulate the locked-in ecosystem of the Apple-verse with a phone most describe as "incremental" and a point upgrade to the near one year old Jelly Bean OS.

Same old Jelly Bean, with Samsung-friendly enhancements

The software isn't going to please every Android user: It carries a few zesty new features, some of which might even work on older devices, but there's a series of observations concerning the release that may raise concern, even among Google's acolytes:

The timing of the software release reflects just how dominant Samsung has become across Android's ecosystem -- will other hardware manufactures easily be able to get Google to include features specifically for their devices?

Samsung has also plastered its own customizations upon Android, on which analyst Peter Misek notes: "Additionally, a major complaint amongst Galaxy users is that they do not like Samsung's customized software, especially when it is a downgrade in performance from stock Android features."

During the presentation, Samsung made little mention of the OS. Computerworld observes:

"The unspoken revelation of the evening was Samsung's intention to build its own ecosystem for smartphones apart from Android, Milanesi and other analysts said. "Samsung has grown up and is playing as the big guy, moving away from Android," she said."

"It almost feels like Samsung is trying to set up Tizen as its next OS instead of Android," said Strategy Analytics analyst, Kevin Burden.

These varied murmurings potentially reflect a future plan on the part of the firm to leapfrog itself out of Android and into a new OS paradigm. It will be interesting to see if this is what happens, but I sense dawning schism across the Android ecosystem as other players consider Samsung's advantages in the shared space.

Incremental upgrade for Samsung

Then the hardware: A larger screen seems to be something some welcome, the high megapixel camera will grab nice images at the cost of storage space (though inclusion of SD support will please many), and the processor should help the device drive the curious new video features and additional display real estate.

Some innovations inlcude: the rumored Smart Pause and Smart Scroll were also announced, as Computerworld states: "Both use an infrared gesture sensor in the S4 to stop a video when looking away or to advance text on a Web page without touching the screen."

I am curious how sensitive these features might be, as I can imagine it may not be a good user experience to stop a video when someone glances away, but we'll await real-life consumer reactions to this.

I'm also interested in what I suspect might be signals Samsung has a plan to build out its own closed-type Apple-style ecosystem in its products.

That, at least, is what I see in news the device will work as a remote control when used in conjunction with some of the company's own smart TVs. Nomura notes other compelling sounding features will only work with other S4s or new Samsung televisions.

We've all heard claims Samsung is plotting a course toward presenting a content-based ecosystem with which to compete with iTunes. In conjunction with Samsung-only features and some dominance over the future direction of Android OS development, it will be interesting to find out how "locked in" Samsung's ecosystem will emerge to be in contrast to Apple's own iEnvironment.

Revolution? No

So is this a revolution? Short answer, "No", though most believe the device (available worldwide in Q2) will comprise big competition for the iPhone, due itself to appear in or around Q3. That iPhone will also no doubt be regarded as "evolutionary", rather than a radically different device. That's despite its likely inclusion of biometric security, a much improved camera technology, an NFC chip and a significantly faster A-series processor.

In an echo of analyst reaction to the iPhone 5, Nomura's Stuart Jeffrey concludes: "While clearly a step forward relative to the S3, there is much that is evolutionary about the S4, rather than revolutionary."

Piper Jaffray's Gene Munster agrees, calling this a "largely incremental" update and calling the software improvements "minor compared with what Siri was to the iPhone 4S or even Google Now to Android."

So, is Apple reeling? Not especially, I don't think the company minds competition at this stage of the evolution of the smartphone space, though it would obviously have preferred if Android hadn't reached market as soon as it did.

Based on recent changes in supplier and component orders I do think the company is prepared for relative weak growth in iPhone sales across the next quarter, but also predict the volume and frequency of rumors regarding the features of the new device will increase in the coming weeks, pending its introduction in mid-summer, likely around the end of the quarter.

I do fear that in the event Apple doesn't upgrade its iPhone in Q2 it will see real impact on iPhone sales in Q3 as Samsung evidently intends spending its marketing and promotional coin to widen its Galaxy franchise as soon as possible.

My conclusion? Samsung has a device which will impact Apple's smartphones, but for all the bread and circuses with which Samsung surrounded its release, there's still plenty of space left within which Apple can innovate. That's a good thing for smartphone users of every type. Though I've no doubt the vocal Android-related Internet commenting department and the shills will dispense their customary repetitive doses of anti-Apple rhetoric.

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