Mobile Technology

Opinion: The biggest mobile innovation since the iPad came from Samsung

Opinion: The biggest mobile in...
When looking at mobile innovations from 2011 and later, the Galaxy Note towers above all others
When looking at mobile innovations from 2011 and later, the Galaxy Note towers above all others
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When looking at mobile innovations from 2011 and later, the Galaxy Note towers above all others
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When looking at mobile innovations from 2011 and later, the Galaxy Note towers above all others
The original Samsung Galaxy Note had a 5.3-in screen – fairly tame by today's standards
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The original Samsung Galaxy Note had a 5.3-in screen – fairly tame by today's standards
The Dell Streak is a long since forgotten precursor to the Galaxy Note, delivering a 5-in screen in mid-2010
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The Dell Streak is a long since forgotten precursor to the Galaxy Note, delivering a 5-in screen in mid-2010
The first Galaxy Note next to the most popular smartphone launch of late 2011, the iPhone 4s
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The first Galaxy Note next to the most popular smartphone launch of late 2011, the iPhone 4s
The original Note next to today's Galaxy Note 4
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The original Note next to today's Galaxy Note 4
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Earlier this week, we took a look back at the innovation of the original iPad, five years after the fact. But that got us thinking: what's been the biggest mobile innovation in the five years since then? Take Note: it belongs to Samsung.

We're talking, of course, about big-screened smartphones (phablets, if you will) and the Samsung Galaxy Note. When the original Note launched, in October of 2011, it wasn't just a little bigger than the phones of the day – it absolutely dwarfed them.

Just look at the 5.3-in Galaxy Note (1st generation) next to the most buzzed-about flagship of late 2011, the iPhone 4s (scaled to actual sizes as closely as possible):

The first Galaxy Note next to the most popular smartphone launch of late 2011, the iPhone 4s
The first Galaxy Note next to the most popular smartphone launch of late 2011, the iPhone 4s

The iPhone 4s' screen was only 45 percent as big as the original Note's. Popular handsets like Samsung's own Galaxy S II and Galaxy Nexus, as well as Motorola's Droid Razr, came a little closer, but their display sizes still fell well short of the Note's.

Today flagship smartphone screens typically range from 4.7 inches to 5.5 inches. Their larger phablet counterparts generally start there and sprout all the way up to 6 inches. 2011's "absurdly large" is positively "middle-of-the-road" today.

The original Galaxy Note deserves credit for being ahead of its time, and Samsung should also get kudos for envisioning a future full of PDA-style mobile devices that can serve as both phone and tablet. That also includes the Note's stylus and productivity-based software features. I dug up an old post I wrote from the time that speculated Samsung was aiming the original Note at "business users," and while that may or may not have been the case, its power user focus forecasted the pocket computers that are today's phablets.

That's the world that we live in today – a world that now finally includes Apple – and it's based entirely on an idea that many of us branded as absurd back in late 2011.

The original Samsung Galaxy Note had a 5.3-in screen – fairly tame by today's standards
The original Samsung Galaxy Note had a 5.3-in screen – fairly tame by today's standards

The Note's S Pen (stylus) was another innovation of sorts, though it has more asterisks attached to it. For starters, the stylus wasn't exactly a new innovation, as PDAs from years earlier had already covered that ground several times over. Samsung didn't so much create this idea, as much as it brought it back from the dead.

But the bigger asterisk comes from the fact that other smartphone makers haven't put much effort into copying the Note's active stylus input (we've only seen this in niche offerings like the mid-ranged LG G3 Stylus).

Is this because pen input is so synonymous with the Note that everyone else prefers to look for their own angles? Do they perceive the pen as something less than a selling feature? Or does Samsung simply own some patents that are keeping competitors at a distance?

Whatever the reason, the Note's S Pen is a rare kind of smartphone feature: one that adds to the experience of using an extremely popular device and one that has yet to be shamelessly copied by other OEMs. Whenever you see the former, you almost always see the latter – usually within a year or so. But 39 months after the original Note launched, we've yet to see a single high-profile flagship from a competitor that uses active stylus input.

The Dell Streak is a long since forgotten precursor to the Galaxy Note, delivering a 5-in screen in mid-2010
The Dell Streak is a long since forgotten precursor to the Galaxy Note, delivering a 5-in screen in mid-2010

If we're going to give credit to Samsung for starting this large phone trend, though, we're also going to have to rewind a bit and give at least some mention to a glorious failure. You could say that the Dell Streak 5 (above) was the original phablet: in mid-2010, it rocked a 5-in display – which was just as unheard of then as the Note's 5.3-incher was in late 2011.

The Streak was, by all accounts, a turd. And unlike the Note, it was quite the commercial flop as well. Poor screen quality, a thick build and a crappy Dell skin on top of Android 1.6 Donut just didn't make for a great product. But while we're dishing out kudos to the earliest phablets, it's only fair that the failures get some kind of mention.

The original Note next to today's Galaxy Note 4
The original Note next to today's Galaxy Note 4

If there's a lesson to be learned from all of this, perhaps it's to try to keep an open mind when new products seem a little over-the-top and out there. Consumer preferences are like the weather: what's chic today may be laughed at tomorrow, with today's oddball becoming tomorrow's norm. Those of us who, in 2011, were so certain that tiny smartphones sitting next to huge tablets were the "one true path" are looking pretty silly today – as interest in tablets continues to slide, and 4.7-inches now stands as the bare minimum screen size for a flagship smartphone.

One mobile device to rule them all is the order of the day. Who knows what tomorrow will bring?

Like every other modern smartphone-maker, Samsung has benefited from standing on the shoulders of the original iPhone's innovation. But Samsung did innovate in its own right, envisioning a larger multitouch device that harkens back to the long-forgotten PDAs of old. Considering how mercilessly this idea was mocked in the iPhone- and iPad-obsessed world of 2011, it's a testament to Samsung's forward thinking that it followed through (and believed in it enough to invest who-knows-how-much in a 2012 Super Bowl ad that put the Note on the map).

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11 comments
Bob Smogango
Everything that I've read, the Samsung sPen is a Wacom designed product.
Axel
Agreed, well done Samsung, but please now finish what you started, give us the one mobile device to rule them all. That means a screen as large as possible while still being ultraportable. The bigger the screen the better for reading, surfing, gaming, watching videos.
For women, that just means baggable, so only weight matters, say 220g. For men, that means pocketable, the inside pocket or side pocket of a jacket, or thigh pocket of trousers. That allows a screen of 16cm x 10cm, about 7.3 inch diagonal, and overall size of 19cm x 11cm.
Otherwise like a Note, especially the S-pen and being able to change batteries. Maybe the ability to choose to install Android or Windows 10.
Mike Sanders
What a pity it never sold, compared to 75million iphones sold in the last quarter. Invention, Innovation and Execution is what drives product development but products also need sizzle and Samsung just don't have it. Sure they have market share but then if you make >1200 models you could reasonably expect to have market share. The hard lesson is though that it is profits that make companies successful not market share. Apples profit last quarter was $18billion yes billion while the mobile division of Samsung made a loss of $4billion.
P.j. Russell
@Bob .... Samsung own ~10% of Wacom...
Catweazle
Hmmm...
Styluses and handwriting recognition eh?
I still have a 1992 IBM Thinkpad running Windows for Pen Computing V1.0.
It worked remarkably well after a bit of training, and was wonderful for playing Solitaire.
My daughter used it for years, and got along very well with it.
neutrino23
I think a stylus hardly qualifies as an innovation. As you point out, this technology has been around for ages. There are dozens of these available for iPads and other tablets, both passive and active designs. Apple has something like 20 patents in this area as do many other companies.
There are many productivity apps for both iOS and Android. Now IBM is designing dedicated iOS productivity apps for a host of industries.
The Note 4 suffered from poor build quality. There were many reports about the large gap between the case and the glass surface. It is no wonder that sales were so poor.
It wouldn't be surprising to see Samsung exit the phone business in a few years. They can't compete with Apple at the high end and they are being eaten alive by Xiaomi and others at the low end.
FrankR
Hmm.. Seems as though we're all forgetting that HP had the then innovative idea of adding a GSM phone into their PDA's, creating the first true smartphones about 10 years before Samsung had their ideas - and nothing but refinement has occurred since the iPAQ ruled. Also, the iPAQ preceded anything Apple made with a "i" in front of it's name, so to be fair, HP are far more deserving of Gizmag's adoration as innovators than either Samsung or Apple are.....
I guess the writers for Gizmag are probably too young to remember the HP innovations of the early 2000's LOL {:o)
Frank Woolf
That's the great innovation? Just making a rip off copy of the iPhone with a bigger screen? That is hardly an innovation.
Apple had a stylus handheld device called a Newton that recognised hand writing so many years ago that cellphones didn't even exist at the time.
John Lic
It's the best smartphone out there period. More people buy other phone doesn't mean better phone, for them a smartphone itself is too much they don't even want try out the what S-pen can do, so as new operating system just same old boring gridlock app placement look they like but some it's a torture can't do customization years after years. As here someone said it works well if learn how to write, there is no specific ways to write, just write anyway you want as you do real note on paper. If anyone of you don't like the note that's your single opinion but it's as good as any devices up to date.
pmshah
@FrankR
I am guessing that most of the readers may not even heard about iPaq let alone seen one. Except for the fact that it was quite expensive for me to justify I would have loved to own one. I certainly have used my friend's. What I loved about it was the fact that it integrated with MS Office suite on the desktop flawlessly.
I am not sure if iPaq was introduced before or after HP took over Compaq. What I really miss though is the transfletive LCD as used in iPaq with Win CE 4.0. Unless one roots the phone and installs "Invert" absolutely all screens are unreadable outdoors.