Timing is everything. When we decide to do something or perform an action, the context of its success is largely defined by the timing of everything. The greatest idea or product means nothing if it is released at the wrong time. This was the case with Windows Phone, a very good idea that withered and died on the vine because it was released too late after iOS and Android had established themselves as the dominant players in the market. It is in this context that the Samsung Galaxy Note 20 Ultra has entered the smartphone conversation.
In a vacuum, the Note 20 Ultra is the best Android phone released this year. It checks almost every single box that a smartphone power user would want. Large beautiful display with a high refresh rate, versatile cameras, the ultimate productivity accessory in the S-Pen, and all the extra features that Samsung bakes into Android. Many YouTube tech reviewers have praised this phone while others have said that the $1,300 asking price is just too high to justify. Yet Note phones have always demanded a price premium, so why all of the sudden is the price the main sticking point? Releasing a phone in the middle of a global pandemic with that price tag may be the answer. Again, timing is everything.
All in on Premium
Samsung decided that for this year they were going to go a premium route. They were going to make phones that pushed the boundaries of what was previously thought of as possible. This started with the Galaxy S20 Ultra and its space zoom camera. This phone was designed to reinvent how we look at smartphone photography and revolutionize zoom on the smartphone. This was a swift departure from the previous year where the Galaxy S10 series was released. That release included the Galaxy S10e, a lower-priced alternative to the S10 that filled a lower cost void in between the Galaxy A50 and Galaxy S10. With the S20 series release, this idea was thrown out of the window.
Samsung has long seen itself as the true competitor to Apple, and while they compete with companies such as LG and OnePlus, they view their true competition as Apple. This means operating in the premium space of the smartphone market. This year, Samsung decided to go all-in on the ultra-high-end. This the reason that the Galaxy S20 Ultra and the Galaxy Note 20 Ultra exist. This was the plan over a year ago, where the Korean giant decided to make this pivot while bolstering the A-series at the sub-$1,000 price point.
Samsung decided that its two flagship line approach was going to define everything that the company is working on, the birth of the Ultra line offering the very best that the company has to offer. This is how they were going to beat Apple, by throwing everything in the Ultra line to sway iPhone 11 Pro customers away from Apple. Then to use devices such as the A71 and A51 as the proper competition to the iPhone 11. All this made sense to Samsung, but like everyone else in the world, they could not have forecast that the entire globe would be crippled by a devastating pandemic.
The COVID-19 pandemic derailed the normal release cycle of the consumer technology industry. In the hyper-competitive smartphone industry with a rapid device release schedule, the months of lockdown and quarantine put a halt into the machine that is smartphone releases, causing a few phones to be delayed and press events to be canceled. Companies have had to navigate through relocating factories and dealing with massive inventory shortages.
What has also happened during this time is the mass lay-offs and unemployment of the workforce. As companies have tried to adapt to this new world, they have been terminating and furloughing workers at a rapid pace. The US has seen a huge jump in unemployment claims as a result of this. People have become more price-conscious, more aware of what they are purchasing, and hesitant to upgrade their devices for the sake of updating them. This is a disaster situation for a company looking to sell a premium phone.
At $1,300, the Note 20 Ultra is the more expensive Note and by all accounts the only Note that Note enthusiasts will consider. This phone defines excess and it is this excess that makes the phone a non-starter for a majority of people, even people that are Note fans. There has been a conventional shift in the way that many smartphone consumers think about smartphones. Flagships have gotten to be so good in the long term that the average time of ownership here in the US has increased over the years in the past. According to this NPD market report, the average smartphone user in the US keeps their phone for around 32 months. This is a far cry from the yearly upgrade cycle in years past.
Phones have gotten better, are being updated and maintained longer, and the need to spend over $1,000 on an annual basis has lost a lot of credibilities. We see companies realizing this and making a pivot to other revenue-generating models. Apple, a company that has a reputation for hardware sales, has made a shift to focusing on services this past year. Focusing their efforts on projects such as Apple Music, News+, and TV+ that generate monthly revenue as opposed to hoping for when customers will purchase their next iPhone. Google, the makers of the Pixel and Android as a whole, have emphasized their services as well. Services such as YouTube Premium, YouTube Music, YouTube TV, and Google One have become key points of emphasis for the search giant. Pixel sales may be down, but the companies continued penetration in these spaces shows a shift in philosophy. Samsung simply does not have these services in its pipeline, which is evidenced by the companies partnership with Microsoft recently.
Put plainly, Samsung is still very much a hardware company that relies heavily on hardware sales. And their primary sales maker is their Galaxy line of smartphones. The combination of delayed production cycles, people holding onto their phones longer, and opposition to an expensive smartphone have been key driving points of the narrative that the phone just isn’t worth the money as it was in years past.
The $350 Argument
A common theme in all reviews and analyses of the Galaxy Note 20 Ultra has been centered around price. More than ever before, a Note phone is being called excessive and unworthy of a lofty price tag. Yet Note phones priced at $1,000+ are not a new idea. Note 9 was almost $1,000 at launch ($949) and the Note 10+ last year started at $1,100 and was $1,200 for the higher-spec version that is more in line with the Note 20 Ultra. In short, the price jump isn’t that outrageous when comparing Notes to Notes.
We do not live in a Samsung only vacuum, however. Phones like Apple’s iPhone SE for $400 and Google’s Pixel 4a for $350 exist and offer a different sort of conversation when compared to a $1,300 phone from Samsung. What the phones from Apple and Google do in comparison is ask the end-user “what do you use your phone for?”
The Pixel 4a has been the larger focus for much commentary around the Note’s price. This is mainly because there isn’t as much switching between platforms between Android and iOS as there used to be as operating system lock-in from manufacturers has become a very real thing. Someone looking at a new Android phone can look at these two devices that are on opposite ends of the spectrum and realize that they must make a choice. Google and Samsung have approached the phone market at the same time with two phones that couldn’t be more different.
Samsung has taken every feature it knows how to engineer and threw it into a phone. The appeal here is obvious, the most feature-rich and powerful phone that money can buy. A phone that supports a desktop mode with camera features for every sort of user imaginable. This phone does any and everything that anyone could want. Google took a different approach. Their new phone is affordable and excellent at doing the basics. A camera that uses every ounce of AI magic to produce excellent photos and video. A clean software experience that works well and won’t let the user down, with 3+ years of guaranteed software support. The differences in approach by both companies here are astonishing and create a dilemma for a phone buyer. How much value can be placed on Samsung’s additional functionality and features? Can a $350 phone does everything that most people want to do?
In the context of a pandemic with double-digit unemployment rates, it seems that the more sensible answer is to buy the Pixel 4a if necessary or to keep an existing phone. 2020 has been a year of much tragedy and dismay, but in the business context, it has been the year of value. Of a consumer finding value in all purchases because of the economic toll that COVID-19 has had on the world economy. Samsung finds itself in the crosshairs as a company that has made an excellent product without an audience to hear them explain why it is a great product worthy of the money.
A Modern Tragedy
While value has played a big part in the conversation around Note 20 Ultra, there has been a forgotten conversation about just how good this phone is. Samsung offers a device that is both a multimedia and productivity juggernaut. A true master of all trades for a phone user. A screen that is massive with incredible color reproduction for enjoying all sorts of video content. A built-in stylus pen that is more capable than any other accessory in its class for mobile phones. A camera experience that has captivating results. All of these benefits in the same package.
A phone that in any other year would be considered a masterpiece. A must buy without question. Yet Samsung must answer the questions about global self-awareness that Apple will surely have to answer when it releases the iPhone 12 Pro later this year. Questions about how a company can justify charging so much for a gadget when so many competent alternatives in the market exist at so many price points. Where a $350 Pixel 4a can execute excellent photos to rival it. Where an OnePlus 8 Pro at $900 can offer a very close screen experience to the Note. Where an LG V60 at $800 can offer more versatility and use cases for pro users with an included dual-screen accessory.
We have entered a space in the world where a name brand will not go as far as it used to. Apple realized this as they released the iPhone SE in the middle of a pandemic. And despite its shortcomings, at $400 in the US, it is a very appealing device because of its price to performance ratio. Google realized this with the Pixel 4a, the sequel to the already budget-friendly 3a. Where the company added more storage and lowered the price by $50. LG has made a similar pivot in shuttering its famous G line of phones for the LG Velvet, a design-focused phone at $600. On the surface, all of these companies feel like they are reading the room and realizing what must be done.
Samsung, on the other hand, seems as if it is content to continue positioning itself as a premium name in phones. As a company that demands a price premium, much like a high-end fashion company. In the process of being committed to that status, a great phone has been lost in the numbers. Immediately disregarded as overpriced and tone-deaf. In the grand scheme of things, this is a shame, as it is a truly excellent piece of technology and innovation. A great piece of hardware that has been let down by the arrogance of a company afraid to be nimble and change the course of direction. Perhaps next year Samsung will realize this error, but until then I will marvel at a device that is close to perfect released at the most imperfect of times in over a century.