At Samsung's New York City launch event for its latest flagship smartphone, the Galaxy S 4, the company continued the "thumb in Apple's eye" approach that has characterized its marketing campaigns of the past six months. Apparently using the same time machine that every other smartphone and tablet OEM employs to transport us back to the PC market of the late 1990s, Samsung revealed to attendees (and gobs of live blog observers) the usual deluge of tech specs that — for some unfathomable reason — populate the initial paragraphs of every device review: 8 core processor, 13 megapixel camera, 5 inch AMOLED display…

BO-RING! Every Android phone and tablet maker touts these specs because CPUs, image sensors, and displays are the rapidly evolving technology waves that they ride and where most of their evolution resides. To be fair, Apple too is quick with its own spec comparisons, but because Cupertino controls the entire platform from hardware to OS to APIs to cloud and other services, they have a much greater playing field on which to innovate.

With Samsung staking out its ground as Apple's foremost competitor, the Galaxy S 4 and its launch event reveal several insights into the state of this competition today:

  • Samsung has invested significantly in software and it is paying off. Samsung has managed to stuff some unique hardware features into the S IV: environmental sensors (e.g., barometer, temperature, and humidity), the latest WiFi technology (802.11ac), and an IR gesture sensor. But its real differentiation lies in the software it has built to leverage the phone's hardware. From the ability to composite images from both cameras simultaneously, to compositing sound with still images, to embedded language translation integrated with voice to text and text to voice, Samsung's much-improved software skills translate to a wealth of new experiences for their customers.
  • Samsung's leverage has increased substantially. With its previous flagship phone, the S III, Samsung was able to convince its carrier partners to accept a single, commonly branded device. The S IV continues this position, putting Samsung and its Galaxy brand front and center — with the carrier's brand in the background (though still present, presumably, unlike on Apple's devices).
  • Samsung's focus has expanded to the enterprise. Samsung recognized that CIOs remain concerned about the security of Android devices, and has invested significantly to establish its Galaxy devices as reinforced for the enterprise. Its KNOX software for managing work and personal data separation appeals to the BYOD trend, and its substantial marketing investment in the SAFE branding is squarely targeted at assuaging CIO security concerns.

Despite all these advancements in Samsung's position, the event also exposes a clear gap the company has yet to close with Apple: the extent to which it can dictate and exercise control. Apple's launch events may not have the singing and dancing that Samsung brought, but they do have a couple of things Samsung didn't: details like pricing and a specific launch date by country and operator. Apple's brand power allows it to ensure that these critical pieces of information come out at the launch — and none of their competitors, not even Samsung, yet rises to that level.