If the rumors about its Galaxy S5 had been true, Samsung (NASDAQOTH:SSNLF) could've been about to take a commanding lead of the smartphone market. Everything from a metal body, to an ultra high-definition screen, to a radically different take on Google's (NASDAQ:GOOGL) Android operating system had been promised for the handset, and reported on by a variety of fairly reputable publications.
As it turns out, virtually none of it was true.
Given Samsung's marketing budget and retail presence, the Galaxy S5 is still likely to be this year's best-selling Android-powered smartphone. Nevertheless, from a product standpoint, it barely moves the needle and should be of no concern to Apple (NASDAQ:AAPL) or Google shareholders.
Samsung's S year
If Samsung were following Apple's naming conventions, the Galaxy S5 might instead be called the Galaxy S4S. This year, Samsung has made only modest changes to its flagship handset.
The screen is a tiny bit bigger, but not any less sharp.Touchwiz is largely unchanged, except for a new menu system. The processor is slightly faster, but still 32-bit. The backplate is now dimpled, but still made of plastic. The phone is waterproof, but the ports are annoyingly covered.
The two biggest changes are the addition of a heart rate monitor and fingerprint scanner -- ancillary features that could appeal to some users, but are far from instrumental.
Apple gears up for the iPhone 6
Apple, coming off its own S year, should roll out a much improved iPhone in the coming months. If the failure of the Samsung rumor mill is any indication, nothing is known for sure, but widespread reports from publications including The Wall Street Journal and Bloomberg have indicated that Apple has some dramatic changes planned.
Most notably, Apple could be about to increase the size of the iPhone's screen -- perhaps bumping it up to 4.7-inches and pairing it with a larger, 5.5-inch iPhone phablet. Certainly, the iPhone is due for a new body design, as Apple has revamped the look and feel of the iPhone roughly every other year since its original release.
Although Apple's customers are notoriously loyal, some may have strayed if Samsung had delivered a radically improved smartphone. As it stands, there doesn't appear to be anything that would convince buyers to make the change -- if anything, Apple may be able to capture some of Samsung's customers this year by offering a larger display.
A great phone for Google
Although Samsung's latest phone is unlikely to turn many of Apple's customers into loyal users of Google's Android, the Galaxy S5 as it stands is still great for Google. If Samsung had delivered on some of the rumored changes, it could've tightened its grip on Android further still.
Of all the Android devices in existence, about half were made by Samsung (according to OpenSignal), and that sheer dominance has created a rift between the Korean tech giant and Google. With just minor improvements this year, Android buyers may be tempted to look elsewhere, perhaps settling on a competing Android handset from one of Samsung's many rivals.
In addition, while the Galaxy S5 still sports Samsung's unique take on Android, it isn't as unique as it might've been. Last month, Samsung debuted a new Android interface on its Galaxy Pro tablet line -- a radical take on Android that did away with the traditional grid view.
Ahead of the Galaxy S5's unveiling, leaked images showed a phone with a similar, radically revamped interface. Yet, as with the other rumors, that's not how it turned out -- a good thing for Google, as Samsung's new twist on Android buried Google's apps and services behind a wall of tiles.
A modest improvement
Samsung isn't shipping the same phone as last year, but the improvements it has made are hardly noteworthy, and extremely disappointing compared to what was rumored.
The Galaxy S5 isn't the sort of paradigm-defining phone that's likely to win over Apple's customers, and it may even open the door for some of Google's other hardware partners to take center stage.