Is Samsung Instinct really an iPhone killer?

Samsung announced the imminent release of its Instinct smart phone in Canada last week, a day before Rogers publicized pricing for the iPhone here.

Perhaps the two announcements on the heels of one another was more than fortuitous.

VIDEO – Marwin Al-Najjar, Product Manager, Wireless Terminals Division, Samsung Electronics Canada talks about Instinct

Samsung Instinct – with its glossy black colour, touch screen buttonless interface, and square tabbed icons for the various functions – bears a remarkable resemblance to the iPhone.

The Samsung smart phone is almost the same weight and size as the Apple device, and only marginally narrower.

Canadian media – including yours truly – were offered a preview of Instinct last Thursday at an event held at the Blue Mountain Resort in Collingwood, Ont.

Samsung executives told us that Instinct will be launched this summer in Canada “through the major CDMA carriers” – which presumably means Bell and Telus.

As a technology CDMA (Code division multiple access), despite some advantages, has one really big drawback.

For the most part, CDMA phones don’t use SIM cards, so switching to a compatible provider is extremely difficult. And for the same reason getting your phone to work overseas is also a huge challenge.

By contrast, the iPhone will operate on Roger’s GSM (global system for multiple-access) network – and we know that in other countries this phone can and has been unlocked to make it usable with alternative carrier networks.

Be that as it may, Samsung execs at the Collingwood event studiously refrained from positioning Instinct as an iPhone competitor. Yet everything we learned about Instinct – its user interface, design and specs – indicates that the Samsung product has been designed to take on the iPhone.

In the U.S., where both devices are available, contrasting them is commonplace and many videos offering spec-by-spec comparisons have been posted to YouTube.

Instinct has most of the capabilities you would expect in a high-end hybrid (phone, productivity and entertainment) device and then some.

For instance, it features a Web browser, text messaging capability, e-mail access via the browser, multimedia functionality (an mp3 player, 2.0 mega pixel camera and video camcorder), turn-by-turn GPS navigation, and live TV and radio with streaming capabilities.

A couple of cool, though by no means crucial, features are “haptic feedback” – the slight vibration you experience when working the touchscreen, and voice-to-action that allows you to perform certain tasks by issuing voice commands.

The workflow of the Instinct is also quite intuitive. The three key buttons – Phone, Home and Back – are conveniently located at the bottom of the device.

Then there are a bunch of useful customization options. In their presentation to the Canadian media, Samsung executives emphasized these features, noting that they enabled users do things that are “instinctive” to them).

For instance, pressing the Home button takes you to you a Favourites menu where you can program 4 – 5 of your most commonly used functions, which could be different from user to user.

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The keyboard can also be customized to be used either in landscape or portrait mode.

Also interesting feature is “panning” that allows you to shift the Web browser screen up and down, and to the side just by tilting the device and depressing the camera button.

The ability to save Web pages to your Favourites page is something information workers may find useful. It allows you to quickly check out your favourite sites, without having to manually type out the URL for each one of them.

On the right side is a “voice-to-action” button. You push it and use voice commands to perform certain actions. For instance: you can ask for a Search for a particular location or facility, a capability supported by the GPS functionality built into the phone.

When you access the Messaging capability to create a new message – a full horizontal QWERTY key pad is displayed and “haptic” feedback lets you know you’ve hit the right keys.

On the left side is of the device is the microSD card reader that supports cards of up to 8GB memory.

While the device itself offers you a certain amount of internal storage, according to Samsung exec Marwin Al-Najjar,it’s best to use a microSD card to store mp3 and other multimedia files, as keeping them on the device would slow it down.

Al-Najjar is product manager, wireless terminals division, Samsung Electronics Canada.

Samsung execs say Instinct has been designed in response to user demand for feature-rich devices.

“Mobile devices that were once used mainly for voice communications are now being used for many different things,” said Paul Brannen, general manager of Samsung Canada’s wireless division.

He said research shows 36 per cent of wireless devices sold in Canada in 2008 and 2009 will be PDAs or smart phones. “That’s why you see many of Samsung’s competitors broadening their product portfolio to new devices that are in fact smart phones.”

Brannen said Samsung is on the cusp of this trend because it invests significant R&D dollars each year to track where the market is going, and then react quickly to these shifting market conditions.

Recent research by analyst firm IDC Canada, he noted, indicates that Samsung has assumed a number one position in the Canadian marketplace for wireless devices.

“We also have an advantage in that we can draw on our core businesses – such as our mp3 business, LCD business – and integrate [developments there] into our wireless offerings.”

In response to questions about Instinct’s potential use in the enterprise, Samsung execs said security and certain other features would need to be developed for the device as third party applications to make Instinct enterprise ready.

“This is definitely a voice device first, and data second,” Al Najjar said. But he added that it could be enhanced with capabilities from 3rd Party vendors.

For instance, he said, some carriers may support push e-mail capabilities.

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The Samsung executive said customers with a preference for data would be more likely to opt for a device such as Samsung Jack – launched in Canada earlier this year. “For our consumer customers Instinct, which offers texting and voice, is the ideal device.”

How serious a contender will Instinct be to the iPhone in Canada? How will the two smart phones stack up?

Instinct is still in its final stages of development (we got to play around with the production version for a few minutes) and specs and price plans are going to be the two most decisive factors influencing adoption in Canada.

Adoption vis a vis the iPhone will also depend on what kinds of voice-data plans Canadian carriers offer.

While voice-data plans for Instinct are not yet available, Brannen indicated the cost of the device itself “on a three-year contract will most probably be somewhere between $149 and $199.”

That doesn’t sound like a great deal, given that the 8 GB version of the iPhone will be available for $199 – also on three year contract.

There are also several other unknown quantities, and frankly Samsung’s responses to some of my questions were unsatisfactory, to say the least.

For instance, in response to a question on how much internal memory Instinct would have, Samsung’s said the device would have “sufficient internal memory.”

As mentioned earlier, Al-Najjar did not recommend storing mp3 files on the device itself, saying this would slow it down. So what does “sufficient” mean?

Another unknown quantity is whether Instinct will come with a microSD card included, or whether users would need to purchase that separately? And if it does come with a card, what’s the capacity?

Samsung’s response to those questions went as follows: “The inbox contents of the Instinct phone have not been 100 per cent finalized yet.”

Bottomline, it’s too early to say whether – from a price and voice-data plans perspective – users will find Instinct a more attractive alternative to the iPhone.

But the good news is that very soon Canadians are going to see at least a couple of really high-quality touch screen phones, running on high-speed networks with strong Web and multimedia features.

For the rest, we’ll just have to wait and see until pricing plans for Instinct are out and the device actually hits the Canadian market.

Meanwhile, let’s hope Samsung picks up a hint or two from the widespread chagrin among Canadian consumers in reaction to Rogers’ iPhone pricing plan announcement, and pressures CDMA carriers offering Instinct to provide customers with a better deal.

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