In the days of leaks, rumour and speculation, few details about sought after kit can be kept quiet before the official unveiling. Such was the case for the Samsung Galaxy S6 and S6 edge flagship smartphones. So much gossip flew around prior to Unpacked that the cat was well and truly let out of the bag.
But while we all had a fairly good idea of the look of each device and their specifications, it isn't until you truly hold one in your hand that you realise how much of a departure the SGS6 and edge handsets are for Samsung. They represent a new beginning for the company and having met up with Conor Pierce, the UK's vice president for mobile and IT, it is clear that the company shares that view.
We spoke to him in Samsung's flagship store in the heart of London's West End, amid demonstrations of both handsets to eager customers, and you could sense both the excitement around the launch and relief that the public seem to be as accepting to the new design concepts as much as the press did a month earlier.
"It’s been overwhelmingly positive, as have the reviews and comments," he told us, while looking around the heaving store. "When you put the [Galaxy S6 edge] in someone’s hands it’s hard to resist it. It feels so natural and so different. It’s a very good example of Samsung’s relentless drive towards breaking new ground in technology and, most importantly, premium design."
Premium design is a theme that underpins our entire conversation with Pierce. The new Galaxy phones are genuinely different from what has come before from the company - also different from other devices on the market. Samsung is not playing catch-up with the S6 handsets, it is branching out into something different. And it's something that will affect future phones.
"The company realised that it needed to do something different. We asked questions of people, what do they want? They want premium design, tick that box. They want the best camera, there you go. They want to solve battery issues. And they want choice. So I’m very confident that [the S6 and edge] materialised from what people want," he explained.
"We’ve learned that bringing beautiful, premium innovations in design is what people want. I think the market needs this as well because the market has been very saturated.
"I think it’s about us breaking new ground. It was a bold move to try to do something different, but if you go back to last year, we had the Note edge and you could see how well that was received. So we understand that this is what people want. They are looking for some inspiration, so yes you will see that across our portfolio."
Galaxy Note 5
That means it is feasible to expect further handsets with edge-style wrapped screens, glass-based shells and maybe even another new form factor in the coming months. At the very least, the Note range continues to be very important to Samsung and the next one, the Note 5 perhaps, will have the same design care and attention as the S6 pairing.
"What we have noticed is that typically the upgrade cycle is every 24 months because of the contracts, and people are generally offered an upgrade around six months before that," Pierce said.
"That’s when they start to look at the phones on the market. So it’s very important that we don’t just do our best work in this current quarter. People don’t just turn up in this quarter, or July, August or September, looking for a new phone, it’s all year round.
"I think the fact that we managed to deliver a new form factor with the Note, create a new category, shows the ambition to keep changing and keep innovating. Samsung puts $40 million a day into research and development, which is a massive injection of money into R&D."
The mid-range too will see a benefit.
"It’s really important that we continue to look at the high growth areas and in 2014 the market grew by 30 per cent in the mid-tier. So there is significant growth there available and that’s why we positioned the A3 and A5 in that sweet spot," he added.
"It’s very competitive in that space, but it’s very important for our overall presence in the market. It’s not just about having a great position in the high end."
The critical and consumer acceptance of Samsung's new philosophy and drive into the premium market is likely to affect its position on tablets too.
In an over-saturated market, where tablet devices are available for less than the cost of a meal in a restaurant, the company's former strategy of releasing as many devices as it can, in all sizes and price points, is over. Instead, Pierce told us, it will concentrate on the user experience, especially as interest in the Internet of Things is gathering apace. And we might even seen edge design creep into this year's tablet line-up too.
"The tablet market is very interesting. I think there was an expectation that it would evolve as quickly as the smartphone market, but it’s a very different experience. Most people have a smartphone and a tablet but people tend to keep their tablet longer than they would a smartphone – three to four years. So what we’re doing, not just with tablets but the entire portfolio, is look to consolidate and really find the best device for the best segment. The same thing applies to tablets," he explained.
"As we move towards a smart society and connected home, I think tablets, wearables, watches, smartphones, they will become in essence the remote control and how you manage your home. Your fridge, your TV, your security system will all be aggregated into one. And I think the tablets will be a very important part of that. So we’ll improve the usage. It won’t just be consuming, we’ll be using them as dashboards for our digital lives.
"So definitely new tablets going forward. And new form factors coming. But more importantly, new user cases. How we make sure they offer a richer experience, not just to watch a movie."
Like Pierce touched upon, smartwatches will also become essential to the growth of the Internet of Things, the connected home. Using a wristworn device to control your lighting, washing machine, TV and other household appliances and utilities is the stuff of science fiction, but we're on the cusp of it being reality. And unlike Apple, Samsung has realised that for the last few years, being well into its generational smartwatch upgrades.
However, it seems like the category is only just starting to gain attention from non-tech sources, thanks to the Apple Watch launch. Its pre-orders opened on the same day as the Samsung Galaxy S6 and S6 edge phones hit the shops for the first time and it seemed that daytime TV, at least in the UK, reported on it as if it had never heard of a smartwatch before, discounting Samsung's products and other Android Wear devices.
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It would be enough to drive anyone mad, but Pierce sees the long game. He believes that Apple's rival product will be good for the industry as a whole and good for Samsung's own smartwatches.
"It slightly annoys me that we have been the ones to create the category, build the awareness, build the consideration and we’re now on our third generation of smartwatches. But it’s a great opportunity for all of us, all the people who want to build this category, to build the awareness of what a smartwatch can do. And once that awareness grows it’s up to all of us to make sure that we bring value to the end user," he said.
Apple might be late to the party but it's certainly increasing awareness in the category. And Samsung could benefit from that greatly as it is already an established player with multiple devices available and more on the way. Apple might have turned up on the doorstep with lovely bottle of wine in hand, but Samsung is already in charge of the drinks cabinet.
"We have our third generation of watches and they are much more technically advanced. And we have a lot more applications available and a lot more devices that they can work with. Plus, we want to make our devices available to all channels, not just a narrow focus," highlighted Pierce.
"We also want to make it affordable. If you want to build a category, you have to make it affordable. You can’t just have a very high end premium device. Obviously you can but you want to make it mass market. And with our ecosystem ambition, through SmartThings, our wearable watches could become the remote control for an open platform as opposed to a closed, walled garden."
Tizen will also be important to the connected future and the ecosystem ambition. Even though it is unlikely that the experiment of Samsung Tizen phones will amount to much more than the company keeping its hand it, the platform will be important to the company's IoT strategy, possibly being the bedrock of many appliances and devices other than handsets or tablets. Samsung will continue with Android for those, but could adopt Tizen elsewhere - as it has in its TVs and smartwatches.
"It’s important to understand that we helped build the Android ecosystem through our smartphones. And by 2017 the target is to have 90 per cent of our entire portfolio, in consumer electronics, digital appliances, smart devices, all connected. Some will be on Tizen, and we’re very committed to driving that ecosystem, but naturally we have a very healthy and growing partnership with Google," he said.
"It’s about choice and this illusive Internet of Things, this smart society, how will that end? We have to make sure we can deliver whatever the market requires."
And so back to the Galaxy S6 and S6 edge phones. They are clearly more than just a couple of new Android handsets. As Pierce suggested throughout our chat, they truly represent a future for Samsung mobile and IT that will affect every device and category going forward, from future phones and tablets, to smartwatches and SmartThings appliances.
Conor Pierce is fairly new in the job at Samsung but his arrival from Nokia and Microsoft Devices could not have been better timed, it heralds a new era for the company. One that has had a confident start.
"It’s been an excellent start and I do believe that it’s the beginning of a new dawn for Samsung Mobile," he enthused.
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