Samsung's doing a lot of good, but there's always room for improvement.
When the year comes to a close, it's a great time to look at what we're going to expect in the new year. We always like to play armchair quarterback when we analyze and talk about companies in the Android space, but after following Samsung closely for several years we think it's a good thought experiment to lay out what we think the company should do in 2016.
It may not all happen right away, but we can dream, right? Here's what Samsung needs to get moving on in 2016.
1. Focus on software experience
2015 was a fantastic year for Samsung's design and materials across its phones and tablets. The Galaxy S6 and Note 5 (and their edge variants) are wonderful pieces of hardware that go toe-to-toe with the best phones out there, and the internals back up the design as well. The weak point, year after year, is always the software.
Even though the Galaxy S6 marked another round of flattening out TouchWiz and removing lots of features, I think Samsung needs to go further and quicker with this progression. The bright colors, drop shadows and superfluous animations need to be wiped out completely. I think it's very much possible to keep the Samsung design ethos intact while also cleaning up the interface further and removing even more cruft that has stuck around for generations.
I'm not even going so far as to say that Samsung has to pull a Motorola and drop all customization, and I know that there's a strong brand affinity for people who currently have Samsung phones and are looking to upgrade, but at some point you have to make cuts and get up to speed with modern design. In previous years there were other improvements that needed to be made, drawing focus away from the software somewhat — now it's sticking out like a sore thumb.
2. Move your services out into Google Play
This is hardly an issue that's specific to Samsung, but needs to be pointed out regardless — one of the most annoying aspects of manufacturer-customized software experience is all of the duplicate apps and services pre-loaded on the phone that compete directly with the pre-installed apps from Google. Just like the dated look of the TouchWiz interface, these pre-installed apps are a blast from the past that need cleaned up.
Firing up a Samsung phone for the first time you'll find two email apps, two calendar apps, two app stores, two account syncs, two browsers ... the list goes on. And this isn't just a problem for novice users — even advanced users are stuck with the apps because they can't be uninstalled or disabled, as Samsung has baked its default apps into the system. If you want to use any app or service other than Samsung's, you're going to have to fight against the default app time after time just to simply use your phone the way you want.
If Samsung simply broke its apps away from the system and installed them via the Play Store, users would have an actual choice of what apps they wanted to use. And don't get me wrong, some of Samsung's default apps are actually great and ones you'd want to use — but that's not the case for 100 percent of users, and those who don't want them should be able to choose otherwise. Sure Samsung's install base for its apps will drop, but so would the frustration of Samsung device owners who constantly have to deal with these system apps they have no intent of ever using.
Of course Google itself can improve this experience for everyone by reducing the number of its own apps that are pre-installed on phones, and thankfully has started to do just that. New phones conforming to Google's compatibility checks have fewer pre-installed Google apps, and that's a good thing for everyone. Now Samsung just has to follow suit with its own apps so customers can choose which apps they want to use.
3. Offer clarity on the update process
There are few worse than Samsung when it comes to the process of keeping its devices up-to-date, but perhaps worse than the slow updates is the lack of information and communication about the update process. As the industry moves toward offering more transparency as to what's going on in the update system for devices, Samsung continues to be a black box that you can't get any information out of.
While it's a safe bet when you buy a new high-end Samsung phone that it's going to be set to receive the next two versions of Android, there's really no indication at all when that will happen. And while I can applaud Samsung for not rushing updates out the door (with lower quality in the end), that needs to be accompanied with communication to those users and fans of their phones when they can expect the update and what's going on. It may not be exactly what they want to hear — "this update is going to take a while!" — but not hearing anything is even worse, particularly with Samsung's track record of randomly abandoning fairly recent devices without even a mention of the situation.
Now I know carriers, regions and variants get in the way here to make things a bit confusing (for both Samsung and customers), but this is a solvable problem. Do right by your customers and let them know what's happening with updates for their devices.
4. Keep strong on the camera front
After some questionable camera decisions in the Galaxy S5 last year, the Note 4 set Samsung on the right path and things only improved with the Galaxy S6 — so much so that we saw the same exact camera in the Galaxy Note 5. Samsung arguably offered the best camera experience in any smartphone of 2015, from speed and interface to straight image quality.
Rather than sit and keep the same sensor, lens and specs again, Samsung needs to keep pushing forward to stay on the bleeding edge of camera technology. Samsung could really hang its hat on the camera quality of its leading phones in 2015, and being able to do the same in 2016 and beyond is important to growing a strong customer base. The worst thing Samsung can do is continue to ship new phones with the old camera setup — even though it's good, the competition is close behind and always improving. We saw what happened with Sony continuing to ship new phones with the same camera setup for several generations — everyone lapped it.
5. Maybe it's time to give up on capacitive buttons
One of the biggest points of brand recognition on Samsung's phones is the set of physical and capacitive keys on the bottom of its devices, which with one glance at the home button lets you know that you're definitely using a Samsung phone or tablet. The familiarity of the capacitive keys is also something that Samsung users can lean on when upgrading or switching between Samsung phones, knowing right where the buttons are.
The problem is, capacitive keys just don't offer the value they once did, and on-screen navigation buttons are the future of Android — it's time to move on. On-screen navigation buttons offer more flexibility, don't take up hardware space on the bottom of the phone, can be rotated when the device is (which would be great on tablets) and can be updated and changed with future versions of the operating system.
Sure the fingerprint sensor — which Samsung does really well — has to go somewhere, and there's a legacy of Samsung devices that will still have capacitive keys during this transition, but you have to make the cutoff somewhere. Just like Samsung eventually killed off the Menu button for a more up-to-date Recents button instead, the capacitive keys should go the way of the Dodo as well. Samsung has plenty of other ways to differentiate its phones, and millions of future Samsung phone owners will applaud having more functional and modern navigation buttons.
6. Start selling unlocked in the U.S.
Though Samsung has massive success selling phones through carriers and those carriers' retail partners in the U.S., it'd be a huge move for Samsung to start selling unlocked phones to customers in the states. The purchasing climate in the country is clearly moving toward buying unlocked, off-contract phones, and I think it's important for Samsung to join other manufacturers in selling directly to its customers.
We've seen glimmers of this through the years with various "developer edition" phones, primarily for use on Verizon, but Samsung has generally refused to sell directly to consumers in the U.S. Even elsewhere in the world, Samsung leans on carrier and retailer relationships where possible rather than selling directly to consumers. While the money and market share is flowing when selling through carriers right now, that isn't going to be the case forever — Samsung would be smart to get out ahead of the game and start offering phones for those who want to buy unlocked.
Of course these are just our suggestions, so we want to hear what you think Samsung should do in the new year. Let us know in the comments!