A Mediocre Desktop Experience on The World’s Most Expensive Smartphone Targets the Wrong Audience
The highlight of Samsung’s Unpacked Event was clearly the company’s new smartphone hardware. But among the set of features brought to us by this “next big thing”, the one feature that piqued my interest was the Samsung DeX Station.
Samsung’s DeX Station is for the Galaxy S8 what Microsoft’s Continuum was for Windows 10 on smartphones. Essentially, you plug your smartphone into an external accessory which then connects to peripherals like a monitor, keyboard and mouse to provide you with a desktop-like environment.
Microsoft Continuum – The Curse of Windows 10 on Smartphones
Neither the idea nor the implementation adopted by Samsung is unique. This has been tried on Android in various ways, through products like Remix OS and less-successful projects like Andromium. Continuum is the prime example of another tech giant, Microsoft in this case, pairing the smartphone with a dumb terminal to create something grander. The idea was to take the smartphone Windows 10 environment from the small screen where Windows does not really shine as an OS, to the bigger screen where Microsoft is much more dominant through its healthy suite of productivity apps and – eventually – unbeatable third-party support and legacy programs. Apps running on the phone automatically adapt to the screen size of the connected display. So apps like Excel and Word run in a more conventional desktop view with their suite of functions and shortcuts available for much easier access through the keyboard and mouse as well.
A key part of Continuum is that it could bring cost savings to users who now possess machines powerful enough for their daily tasks in their pockets, but have no way of using their smartphones for true productivity. For most users whose needs oscillate between productivity apps like Word, Excel and Outlook and a web browser like Chrome, Firefox or Microsoft Edge, the need for an expensive, dedicated desktop tower computer grows lesser by the day. With the growing popularity of cloud services for storage and even processing needs, the future for Continuum could have been really interesting.
But alas, Microsoft’s Continuum strategy had a major flaw, which ironically was also part of the selling point — it needed a Windows phone. Continuum was only available on select phones running Windows 10 mobile, and Microsoft’s support page states the phones being limited to the HP Elite x3, Microsoft Lumia 950 and Lumia 950 XL. With Microsoft still struggling and failing against Android and iOS at that point of time, limiting Continuum to a couple of phones on an unpopular mobile OS meant that the total number of users who could experience and benefit from Continuum was extremely limited.
Since Windows 10 was an unpopular platform for smartphones (nowhere near the popularity of Android and iOS), the thought of avoiding unnecessary double costs was far-fetched. One had to invest into a Windows 10 phone, leaving behind the goodies of Android and iOS and then go forth with a separate dock and then also consider investing into the Windows 10 app ecosystem. At such a stage, getting a smart terminal itself would become a viable option, so why bother?
Continuum at the time of its release also did not support running multiple windows on the screen simultaneously — you were restricted to using one full-screen app at a time. This is a big limitation as it forces users to juggle and switch between apps if they wish to have a semblance of multitasking. Like for example, a fairly common and lightweight use case of research that may involve searching websites through the browser and jotting down notes in a text editor side-by-side would simply not be possible unless you do not mind switching back and forth between these two apps, or using your smartphone separately
Continuum also could not run desktop Windows apps, but you could partially work around that limitation by using a Remote Desktop app to connect to a proper computer at home/work — but that does defeat the whole purpose of Continuum, i.e. not needing anything more than a dock. peripherals and your smartphone. Desktop Windows apps are a future possibility with the ARM on Windows 10 project by Microsoft, though we are still waiting to hear more about Microsoft’s progress on the same. The collaboration from Microsoft and Qualcomm to bring the Snapdragon 835 to “cellular PCs” could in turn work out in favor of Continuum and its use cases, assuming there will be a SD835-powered Windows smartphone in the future.
Remix Singularity – Fixing Continuum with Android
Now, one of Continuum’s problem can be fixed by substituting the Windows 10 device requirement with an Android device. This is exactly what Jide is aiming for with Remix Singularity. Remix Singularity leverages Jide’s previous experience with running Android as a Desktop OS and extending the same to a dumb terminal by transferring the heavy work to the smartphone running the customized ROM.
The issue with Remix Singularity lies within its arrival in the market as well Jide’s overall reach and popularity, which would prevent the ROM from tapping onto many of its potential consumers. Singularity comes out in second half of 2017, and last we heard, they were looking for OEM partners to sell phones that supported Singularity out-of-the-box. Jide’s popularity is also fairly limited, being restricted to mainly tech enthusiast circles. A mainstream consumer has no knowledge that a product like Remix Singularity exists, and that will present a lot of friction for Singularity’s success as a commercial product solution. There’s still a lot in the air with Remix Singularity, so we would be cautious to not write it off before it arrives.
Samsung DeX – Providing (Wrong) Audience to the Singularity Concept
Samsung’s DeX fixes a lot of the issues that we saw with Continuum and Remix Singularity, but introduces some of its own.
First, the improvements. Samsung DeX utilizes Samsung’s latest flagships, the Samsung Galaxy S8 and S8+ to power the desktop experience. In and by itself, this massively improves the adaptability of DeX as an alternative to the conventional PC. Samsung has set itself a goal of 60 Million units shipped for the Galaxy S8, which is much higher than the total shipments of models from the past three years. The S7 shipped 48 Million units, and the S5 and S6 shipped 45 Million units each. Highest shipment records are held by the Galaxy S4 with 70 Million units and the S3 next with 65 Million units.
With DeX related functionality preloaded, Samsung’s latest flagships put Continuum-like ability in the hands of 45 Million customers, that is if we assume a modest shipment target well short of Samsung’s own goals. With the initial reception to the Galaxy S8 and S8+ being largely positive, and Samsung’s massive advertising and marketing campaigns, the numbers are expected to possibly be even higher.
DeX also tries to work around its inability to run traditional desktop apps by providing the option to access virtual apps and desktops through Samsung’s partnership with Citrix, VMWare and Amazon Web Services. Samsung has worked together with these companies to ensure their apps are optimized for Samsung DeX with keyboard and mouse interactions, full-screen mode and resizable window capabilities. But these features are geared more towards business professionals and enterprise users who have needs to remotely and securely access apps on their work computers, rather than for a budget-conscious casual user. Still, working with third parties to ensure proper feature sets is a smart idea, and even Microsoft is helping DeX by offering “DeX-optimized” versions of its productivity apps (glorified tablet apps).
But the problem with DeX as it currently stands is that even though it extends itself to a very large audience, it extends itself to the wrong audience. The same problem existed with Continuum, although a solution like Remix Singularity might have been able to sidestep the problem.
Customers who purchase the Samsung Galaxy S8 and S8+ belong to that set of users who are more likely to purchase high-end goods. On average, you’d expect such customers to have a larger pool of disposable income and less of a need to avoid overlapping expenses. If you look at some of the Galaxy S8’s biggest markets, like the United States, you’ll find no shortage of laptops and desktop computers, and in the richer markets of the globe these tend to be capable products from Apple or Samsung itself. A consumer willing to spend a premium price on Samsung’s premium flagship is arguably more likely to spend a relatively similar or even higher amount on a computer that satisfies the other set of needs that DeX intends to fulfill. It would not be far-fetched to think that there would be a large overlap between users of a premium flagship like the Galaxy S8 and users of an expensive computer like a Macbook Pro, a Windows ultrabook or a performance desktop rig. One could also argue that a good computer is a bigger priority than a good flagship smartphone, too, for people who need a desktop or laptop for work or school.
For these customers, it would make less sense to invest into Samsung DeX just to get an Android experience expanded onto the desktop. Granted, their needs could be fulfilled through their powerful smartphones as long as the tasks they did were limited in scope. But why settle into settling your phone in a permanent fixed position just to experience Android on a desktop environment, when you have viable alternatives like proper, conventional computers?
Samsung DeX could shine in the exact opposite end of the market spectrum where the Galaxy S8 and S8+ thrives.
Consumers with lower disposable incomes, especially those in developing nations, are in a better position to appreciate the functionality and convenience of something like Samsung DeX. They are the ones that have less resources to invest into many separate products that could ultimately be leveraged to fulfill the same needs, and would enjoy an opportunity to avoid double expenditure. Having a dumb terminal/desktop setup doing routine tasks while being powered by a smartphone just makes more sense when you do not have the means to afford a conventional computer alongside a smartphone that is powerful enough to do those things anyway (admittedly, mostly basic tasks), but is limited by the constraints of its form-factor.
But alas, the Samsung Galaxy S8 and S8+ are not a poor man’s devices. Carrier variants of the S8 and S8+ come in at a healthy $750 and $840 respectively. Even if one assumes the consumer to have the monetary capacity to purchase a flagship from Samsung, there are more additional costs involved to get into the DeX experience. Samsung’s DeX Station itself costs $149.99, and peripherals like a basic wired set of keyboard and mice can cost around $20, while a basic HDMI monitor can cost anywhere around $40 and beyond depending on your needs.
All in all, you can expect to put in close to a thousand dollars to experience Samsung’s Android-desktop environment. That is a lot of money to commit to the cause.
Unless Samsung brings the functionality towards its mid range and eventually budget lineups like the J-series and On-series, DeX’s actual audience may never surface at all. If DeX remains restricted to premium devices, it may die a slow and Continuum death after failing to take off at all. Samsung does mention “(DeX) compatibility will be expanded to support other devices in the future”, but such a future and its timeline remain uncertain.
Substituting Samsung’s flagship with other affordable flagships will greatly help to expand the audience for DeX. Phones like the OnePlus 3T and ZTE Axon 7 have great hardware that can be exploited well to provide a similar experience on a friendlier budget. If Samsung chooses to give up the S8-exclusivity on the DeX platform, the potential of DeX could be spread across the market through different OEMs much more cost-effectively. Even ensuring that it finds its way downstream from its own flagship line-up, or that future and more-capable mid-rangers are able to use the feature, would go a long way in making it a popular feature in various countries. Using a capable device available locally at a fraction of the cost of the S8 will immediately make DeX more accessible to the tons of people who actually have a need for it, yet aren’t the Galaxy S8’s real target-demographic. A cheaper example with the $439 OnePlus 3T brings the cost down to ~$650, and makes DeX much sweeter of a deal.
There are serious efforts in regions like Latin America, Africa and South East Asia to expand the adoption of technology and improve general computer literacy and ability as well. Millions of dollars go into government programs or foundations to bring cheap, affordable computers to students and families, yet these can even be less powerful than cheap flagships or premium mid-rangers. Their populations have a serious need to get their foot in the information economy.
As newly middle-class households seek opportunities to grow, they look towards technology to provide a means of self-empowerment by bringing them information, knowledge and new marketable skills, things that were once beyond their reach, guarded by gatekeepers and institutions. Providing a “computer desktop” experience to such households by tapping into the power of the smartphone in their pockets, and leveraging the serious yearly improvements across all smartphone brackets, is something that could have truly and wonderfully shown off the potential of Samsung DeX. Having one affordable flagship coupled with DeX and peripherals would be a better cost bargain and be more future proof (needing to replace only one device to upgrade the processing of the entire unit) than having a low end smartphone and a dedicated computer that only gets used for Word and web-browsing.
As it stands now, Samsung DeX just remains an example of how capable our pocket computers really are. Maybe just an example is what Samsung wanted after all.
What are your thoughts on Samsung DeX? Do you think users of the Galaxy S8 and S8+ are the right audience to pitch the functionality to? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below!