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Samsung Galaxy S4: Apple must go big with the iPhone 5S, or go home

The Samsung Galaxy S4 is an omnipotent smartphone – an omniphone – that gives us our first real glimpse at a future where all our computing needs are satisfied by the same device. Be it productivity, content consumption, or playing games, it’s now clear that the future of personal computing is consolidation in a single portable device; most likely a smartphone. For the hundreds of millions of people who find themselves relying on their smartphones more and more each day, this doesn’t come as much of a surprise.

What is surprising, though, is that no one would’ve expected it to be Samsung that would wrap up the bedroom, living room, and office with a single device; anyone with a grain of sense would’ve pegged Apple as the ultimate consumer electronics master. Somehow, Apple has blown it.

Just a year or two ago, it seemed like Apple had it all sewn up with the iPhone and iPad. Every sensible person had money on Apple – and indeed, judging by Apple’s meteoric market valuation between 2009 and 2012, from $80 per share to a peak of $700 per share, every sensible person really did have their money on Apple. While Apple’s position as the world’s most valuable company was no doubt cemented by truly ridiculous profit margins, the main reason for Apple’s incredible valuation was the investor belief that the Cupertino company could seemingly do no wrong. Apple’s track record really was astounding, going from zero to world’s-most-profitable-hero in just a few years, first on the back of the iPhone, and then the iPad.

It has now been three years since the release of the iPad, and except for a few hardware tweaks and the introduction of Siri, nothing has really happened since. When the iPhone was the only smartphone worth taking seriously, Apple might’ve got away with slow updates and stagnant feature sets – but today, with strong competition on both the hardware and software front from Android, Apple is struggling to keep afloat, let alone ahead. The iPad is still the unquestioned king of the tablets, but for how long? The 7in Android tablets are gaining ground, and Samsung’s Note tablets are starting to make the iPad look very staid and featureless in comparison.

And then there’s the living room. With Apple TV, iTunes, millions of games, and AirPlay streaming, all eyes have been on the seemingly-imminent-but-fast-becoming-vapourware iTV – the large screen centrepiece of the Apple living room experience. With an iTV, some gamepad peripherals for the iPhone and iPad, and a Sonos-like music player, Apple could’ve mopped up the entire home entertainment market, and much of the at-home consumer electronics market too.

That isn’t to say that Samsung has crafted a perfectly integrated living room solution, but it’s definitely a lot closer than Apple. Once you factor in laptops, tablets, and even fridges and washing machines, Samsung is approaching the point where, for some people, almost every device they interact with will be made by Samsung. Not that it really matters in the overall Grand Unified Living Room, but let’s not forget that Samsung probably makes the SoC or memory for any other non-Samsung devices that you use, too.

iPhone 5S: Go big, or go home

Apple’s response to Samsung’s growing dominance, if it has one, must come with the iPhone 5S – or not at all. Since the launch of Siri some 18 months ago, we’ve seen very little in the way of innovation from Apple. If Apple continues with its usual release cadence and simply makes the iPhone 5S a bit faster, the company will be in trouble – and that’s exactly why the company’s stock price has been plummeting since the release of the iPhone 5.

With ever-increasing pressure from Android, and Microsoft and BlackBerry praying for some action, Apple really doesn’t have a whole lot of leeway. If the iPhone 5S (due Q3 2013) is just a minor speed bump, then that means it’ll be a full 18 months until Apple can finally respond to the Samsung threat with the iPhone 6 – by which point there’ll already be a Galaxy S5, which will raise the bar yet again.

It’s a little odd seeing Apple play catch-up after being the forerunner for so long, but this is what happens when a company rests on its highly profitable laurels. Where Apple is making minor OS tweaks and implementing one or two new features every 24 months, Samsung has made enough changes that its flagship devices are now almost completely differentiated from Android.

S Translator, ChatOn, Smart Pause/Scroll, Air View/Gesture, WatchOn, Adapt Display/Sound, S Health, Sound & Shot, Group Play, Dual Camera – all new in the last 12 to 24 months, all exciting, and almost all without parallel on iOS/iPhone. At this point, with every smartphone on the market packing a Retina display and fast SoC, I think it’s a little disingenuous to compare the hardware – but even here, in Apple’s oldest stronghold, Samsung has met or surpassed the competition.

Apple isn’t out of the race yet, of course. It would be stupid to discount a company with the largest bank balance and best supply chain in the world. As Apple knows all too well, though, you can’t put a price on momentum – and Samsung has built up a hell of a lot over the last three years of Galaxy phones. While Samsung continues to build upon that momentum, Apple is merely drifting.

While you’re here, you might also want to read: How Apple can ensure the iPhone reigns as king again.