As Samsung President Dong Jin Koh paced around the stage in New York to introduce the company's newest phone on Thursday, it all felt a bit surreal. The Samsung Galaxy Note 9 is no doubt an impressive piece of hardware, but we've heard this kind of hyperbole — this is the most powerful phone ever — before. In fact we hear it at every release event, every year.
The first iPhone or even the first Galaxy Note were radically new pieces of technology, but for all its genuinely powerful, novel features, the Note 9 is just another incremental upgrade. This is not really Samsung's fault. The familiarity of the Note 9 instead points to a broader problem facing smartphone makers, and Android manufacturers in particular: Now that the smartphone market is matured, we are starting to hit an upper limit on what the smartphone can do, leaving companies scrambling to try and create the next thing without losing their relevance.
Still — the Note 9 is an impressive piece of hardware, and power users looking for a new phone would do well to consider it. The Note line has always been unique in that it introduced the world to the large-screen smartphone and combined it with top-end hardware and a stylus. The Note 9 continues the trend by including an enormous 6.4-inch screen, a top-of-the-line processor, and a new pen that doubles as a camera remote. There's also a big battery — safety tested to avoid the debacle of the exploding Note 7.
But the most interesting feature of the Note 9 is the same one that most clearly points to the problems looming over the horizon for the smartphone market. The phone includes the latest version of DeX, Samsung's solution to use a smartphone as a PC. Plug in an HDMI cable to connect the Note 9 to a TV, and you can use the phone to watch videos, access documents, and, once you connect a keyboard, also work on them.
It's very intriguing, but it also highlights the contortions that phone companies are having to perform to sell each new model. Presented with devices that can be used to communicate, entertain, discover, and more, users are still asking, "well, what else can I do with it?" Samsung's answer seems to be: "What if you could also use it as a basic PC?"
In fairness, this is where technology seems to be going. Both Samsung and Microsoft are also rumored to be working on dual-screen smartphones that will unfold into workable laptops. Mobility is the future and a small, multifunctional device may be just the thing that meets the needs of both productivity and portability.
For the time being, however, it's hard to avoid the sense that companies are throwing everything and the kitchen sink into their devices, just to keep them relevant and novel enough to entice users into upgrading. While this is true for both Apple and Samsung, it really underscores the Android's broader strangeness at the moment: How is the world's most popular operating system continuing to get more popular, but at the same time, becoming harder for anyone to make money on?
This year, Samsung reported soft earnings on weak sales of its flagship Galaxy S9. Granted, that phone was only marginally different from its predecessor, precipitating a yawn from consumers. But Samsung is hardly alone. Sony, one of the world's tech giants, has basically given up on Android smartphones after selling a scant two million in the last quarter. HTC had most of their talent acquired by Google. Smaller players like One are surviving but remain sideshows for the most part. The only solid growth is coming out of Asia where Chinese players like Huawei and Xiaomi are selling millions of devices.
For years, the argument was that the smartphone would get commodified — as ubiquitous and indistinguishable as, say, pork bellies — and there'd be no money it anymore. What happened was that Apple became the biggest company in history on the back of the iPhone. But once you put Apple aside, creeping around the edges of the Android world is the sense that maybe the critics were right — that maybe there just isn't that much to distinguish one Android device from another, and that commodification is exactly what's happening.
That makes the bombastic rhetoric of Samsung's Dong Jin Koh all the stranger. As Shira Ovide at Bloomberg wrote in 2017, there isn't really any point to these flashy launches anymore. Sure, every year there are some novel features, but really, you'll use a new smartphone for what you do now: to text your friends, get directions, watch stuff on YouTube, and play the odd game. And while that's actually pretty great for consumers eager to hold onto their old devices — and not drop the staggering $1,000 it costs to get a Note 9 — it must be pretty worrying for makers of Android phones.
Corporate cheerleaders can hype them all they want, but when there's nothing really new, it's the bottom line that eventually suffers.