Samsung Galaxy S4: Disaster 101

NEW YORK ( TheStreet) -- I guess we should have predicted it.

Samsung had rented Radio City Music Hall, home of The Rockettes, in order to introduce the Galaxy S4, the latest version of its flagship smartphone that never gets the latest version of the Android operating system.

The event started with the big cheese at Samsung quickly rattling off some of the specs of the S4 and then handing it over to what was essentially a fully-fledged Broadway show. These actors "explained" a variety of non-standard Android features of the S4 that most people will never use. It was the most painfully cringe-worthy and corny product presentation I can remember, by a mile.

In technology as in politics, if you don't have the substance, you have to make it up with music and a show. Politicians and product marketers alike have to dumb things down to the lowest common denominator in order for something to sell: "Hope! Change! Look at this shiny Samsung that will change your life!"

If this is reflective of our country -- let alone the world -- I fear for our humanity's future. Are people no longer receptive to a serious presentation with engineers explaining the finer engineering details of a new product to journalists who cover engineering?

Apple's ( AAPL) VP of Marketing, Phil Schiller, caught a lot of flak on the eve of this product introduction by savaging Samsung's continued launch of Galaxy S devices that run almost year-old software. Schiller didn't hire a Broadway show to make his point. He just spoke the truth, as it turns out.

The Samsung Galaxy S4 will be available to U.S. consumers right around the time Google will have moved on with Android to version 5.0, so-called Key Lime Pie. The S4 will be stuck at 4.2.2 for God-knows-how-long. Last year, its predecessor device, the S3, took approximately six months to get its software upgrade, which -- you guessed it -- was then obsolete in turn when it was finally made available.

The Samsung Galaxy S4 is perfectly nice state-of-the-art smartphone hardware. It is very similar in terms of specs to the HTC One, which will hit the market at the same time. It is slightly ahead of two other main competitors -- LG ( LPL) with the Optimus G and Sony ( SNE) with the Xperia Z. Basically, they're all similar enough.

Guess what else is similar? The Samsung Galaxy S4 and the S3 from a year ago. I'd be darned if I could tell the difference. The screen grew from 4.8 to 5.0 inches, the resolution was upped from 720p to 1080p, the CPU became faster and the battery increased, just like the competition. Most people would fail a blind test.

It's a snooze-fest. All smartphone hardware is now essentially the same. They have similar screens, the same chips mostly from Qualcomm ( QCOM), and... well, that's it.

Actually, these presentations might as well be made by Qualcomm, because they contribute the only interesting advancements anyway. At least on the hardware side.

The software side? C'mon, this is all about Google, not Samsung or any of its Android OEM peers. Google makes the latest software available, and if your device is a relatively new GSM unlocked Nexus, you get this new software right away. This is of course why you should only buy Nexus, if you have decided Android is for you.

Samsung made a superb smartphone from November 2011 to October 2012 -- the Galaxy Nexus. It runs Google's latest OS, 4.2.2, which is the same the S4 will get when it hits U.S. stores in a month or two. This just goes to show you that if Samsung were smart, it would make a version of this new outstanding Galaxy S4 hardware that ran pure Nexus software. That would be an awesome device.

I'm not going to go into all the gimmicky new non-Android specific features of the S4 here. You can view them in numerous other write-ups and watch on videos elsewhere. Suffice it to say that I have a slight -- very slight -- preference for Samsung smartphone hardware over the competition, but that all of that is secondary to whether an Android device is a Nexus or not, getting software upgrades right away instead of 6-9 months down the road, if ever. And the S4 isn't, just like the other non-Nexus competition isn't.

It is really hard to explain Samsung's outsized success in the smartphone market. Is it just the gigantic marketing budget? Was it luck somewhere along the road? Is it their vertical integration with semiconductors and screens? It's not as if some of Samsung's market leadership isn't deserved in principle, but the magnitude appears disproportional to the actual product differences.

One thing is clear, though: After this Broadway production, I have more respect for the competition when it simply sticks to the facts and gives us the engineering reasons it has come up with this-or-that software or hardware feature. This goes for Microsoft ( MSFT), Apple, HTC, BlackBerry ( BBRY), LG, Motorola, Sony and Google itself, just to mention the most important ones.

Another thing is also clear: For those of us who want to stay on the cutting edge of Android software, a Samsung keynote is nowhere to be. It's when Google itself is in charge of the engineering-focused, gimmick-free presentation that we learn what is really of interest.

Phil Schiller can sleep with a smile tonight. He has been redeemed.

At the time of publication, Wahlman was long GOOG, AAPL and QCOM, and short MSFT.

This article is commentary by an independent contributor, separate from TheStreet's regular news coverage.

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