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Apple Inc. (AAPL) vs Samsung: Battle of the Features

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The cell phone market today is similar to the computer market of a few years ago; processor speeds and other specs are reaching the point where many consumers can’t tell the difference.

There will always be power users who concern themselves with megahertz and megapixels. And of course, tomorrow’s cell phones will be faster, thinner, and better than today’s. But smartphones have saturated the market so thoroughly that most of today’s consumers are not worried about numbers.

Without data to impress, phonemakers are devising new and innovative features to sell devices. I’ll take a look at Samsung and Apple Inc. (NASDAQ:AAPL), the world’s biggest cell phone producers, to compare their approach to implementing and marketing new features

Samsung
Samsung‘s  flagship smartphone, the Galaxy, is the closest anyone’s ever come to an “iPhone killer.” Samsung has sold more than 50 million S3s, and its successor, the S4, is the fastest selling smartphone in Samsung’s history.

The Galaxy’s success stems from a few basic ingredients. First of all, it features a big, beautiful screen that dwarfs the iPhone’s. Secondly, it included the latest-and-greatest version of Android, which featured significantly more polish than previous iterations. And finally, it wasn’t an iPhone — consumers who didn’t want to buy into Apple’s ecosystem had a worthy alternative.

The phone also includes a multitude of cool features. One of the most lauded is near-field communication, or NFC. Consumers can make “no-touch” payments using their phone! Another is wireless charging; just sit your phone on a special pad and it will charge through special magnetic induction.

Of course, the majority of consumers never use these features. NFC-enabled registers are uncommon the U.S., and wireless charging isn’t very useful when the wireless charger needs a wire. It’s this kind of feature-packing that wastes time and money for a company like Samsung.

Instead of devising a dozen “bleeding-edge” features that most consumers won’t use (but will be lauded by the tech press), the company would do well to focus on the elements that have driven its success so far; a beautiful, impressive display, tight integration with Google‘s Android, and a manufacturing cost that enables resellers to discount it periodically.

Although the S4 has seen impressive sales so far, Samsung is at a crucial juncture in developing the follow-up; many criticized the S4 for providing only iterative improvements over the S3. The company will need to devise a way forward that can incorporate the “Wow!” that the S3 induced without devolving into a collection of little-used features. Its choices thus far put that future into question, making it a questionable long-term buy.

Apple

Of course, Apple Inc. (NASDAQ:AAPL) is just as guilty of over-hyped features. When VP Phil Schiller introduced Siri in 2010, he billed it as the “coolest feature” of the new iPhone 4S — the “best thing yet” for the company’s flagship phone. Back then Siri was awfully cool, and fairly useless. Apple has developed the technology since then, and for many Siri has become the personal assistant Apple Inc. (NASDAQ:AAPL) originally billed her as. It just took a few years.

Still, Apple Inc. (NASDAQ:AAPL) has a good history with introducing useful and, more importantly, usable features. The Passbook app, debuting with iOS 6 last year, was initially a little weak, but rapid adoption by airlines has made it a popular choice for travelers. Smart decisions like making tickets accessible from the lock screen make the feature eminently more usable.

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