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Facebook and Google shape Samsung's new smartphones

Social network-friendly Galaxy S9 suggests hardware no longer leads the way

A woman holds the new Galaxy S9 and S9+ phones during the Samsung Galaxy Unpacked 2018 event on the eve of the Mobile World Congress wireless show in Barcelona on Feb. 25.   © Getty Images

BARCELONA -- South Korean smartphone maker Samsung Electronics on Sunday released its latest flagship models, the Galaxy S9 and the S9 plus.

The new devices are designed to meet the needs of users who frequently exchange images on social networking services. Samsung has set its sights squarely on taking on social media giants like Facebook and Google, rather than rival phone maker Apple. The move is a clear indication that the era in which the competition in hardware performance drives the market is coming to an end. 

The release of the new models came in prior to the Mobile World Congress, a product fair held yearly in Barcelona, Spain.

The improved camera of Samsung's new models can automatically select better photos from a large number taken. It can also give a proper finishing touch depending on the subject's eye color. It can create original 3D emojis from facial expressions. Users can take movies in slow motion, and quickly share the edited versions.

The new devices are Samsung's first flagship models released at the Barcelona show in two years. It had to put off a release last year due to problems with its batteries auto-igniting. The electronics giant focused on making the models SNS user-friendly. The president of the company's IT and mobile communications, D.J. Koh, said the most important function of a phone today is "visual communication," and that the Galaxy S9 had been designed for the visual and social generation.

When Apple came out with the iPhone X in late 2017, its facial recognition security feature, FaceID, caught the most attention. Samsung has combined an iris identification system with face recognition. The company said the combined technology will provide stronger security than rival models. The S9 series has OLED displays as large as 5.8 inches, the same as the iPhone X. With its new models, Samsung intends to maintain its competitive edge in a slowing smartphone market to keep its leading position.

However, many of the features of the S9 that Samsung is promoting have already been integrated into rival models like iPhone X, and are not really very new.

At Sunday's release ceremony in Barcelona, Samsung showed off the S9's slow motion camera feature by playing a video of water being poured into a glass. "Isn't it so cool?" the marketing representative said to journalists, confidently lauding the capability of the camera, which incorporates an image sensor and artificial intelligence working together, and calling it "better than Apple."

But the audience reaction was muted. The presentation seemed intent on persuading users how to take pictures that would impress and amuse friends. Yet the presentation seemed more like one that could have come from a content platform like Facebook, rather than from a hardware manufacturer.

Smartphones have drastically changed people's lifestyles since the release of the Apple iPhone in 2007.

Ironically, the release of the S9 showed how technological innovation may have settled somewhat. In the past, smartphones facilitated the growth of social networking services, but now they seem to follow what is happening in the social networking world. Without innovative products that respond to this reality, Samsung is losing its ability to set the initiative, as is Apple.

Smartphone shipments worldwide fell for the first time in 2017 by 0.6% to 14.7 billion units, according to U.S. research house IDC. Samsung still has the leading market share of 21.6%, but its position is in jeopardy as newer rivals like China's Huawei Technologies gain ground. With the market becoming saturated and price competition intensifying, users have started choosing smartphones not for their features, but for their uses.

This has inevitably given software companies more influence in the smartphone market, once dominated by hardware manufacturers. It is no surprise, therefore, that hardware makers try to figure out what Facebook is up to, given that the social network leader has 2 billion users worldwide.

Google also has great power in the market, providing the leading smartphone operating system, Android. Its dominance in image and voice recognition, as well as language translation, supported by artificial intelligence, is widely known. The photo correction feature in Samsung's new models was developed relying on almost entirely on Google's AI technology launched in mid-2017.

Samsung's rivals may no longer be Apple or Chinese smartphone manufacturers, but software and service providers such as Facebook and Google.

Nikkei staff writer Masayuki Yuda in Tokyo contributed to this article.

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