“Evolutionary, not revolutionary.”
That’s been the typical reaction to just about every smartphone release of the last several years, reflecting, more or less, new features of the hardware itself: bigger screens, better cameras, longer battery life.
Which means regardless of the ultimate fate of Samsung’s newest flagship phone — the Galaxy S8 — Samsung has already won a pretty major victory. Sure, its infinity screen designed for faster scrolling and maximizing the amount of viewable real estate on the screen, its hidden home button, its Harmon headphones, all of the innovations under the hood that make it faster, its sharper camera and the fact that the device is durable enough to use underwater all check the cool features button — but it was the mission of the device that set it, and the many services that it enables now, apart.
Which we imagine is somewhat gratifying for Samsung this morning, since the message of its big show yesterday in New York — where the world got its first chance to meet and greet the S8 — was that it is ready to reinvent the notion of the smartphone. Phones aren’t just tools that make calls — that is the limited use of the past, according to Samsung — and their goal is to set off the new era of the smartphone by redefining the phone into what it truly has the potential to be: the gateway or portal consumers around the world use to connect to the most important people and things in their lives.
Samsung is selling a lifestyle as much as it is selling a phone – their focus on “the phone unboxed” is all about giving consumers the tools to do what they can’t do – because to use their words, they have made what can’t be made.
Sounds like a tall order? It is.
But then, so is making as ostrich fly, which is how they ended their presentation.
The New Phone
The star of the show was the Galaxy 8 phone — and on the whole distinctly “Samsung” looking infinity edge, all curved side-design. With the super slim bezel, the screen is now pushed out to the corners of the phone’s frame, making Samsung able to fit a 5.8-inch display on a device roughly the same physical size as an iPhone 7 — which only has a 4.7-inch screen.
Past the aesthetics alone, Samsung bills the redesign as making the phone more intuitive for use — with more immersive view, less scrolling, and an invisible home button. The phone is waterproof for those out there who want to take pics while swimming (or for those who tend to jump into pools without putting down their phones first).
In an acknowledgment of their Galaxy 7 issues, Samsung also spent a lot of time talking about the various safety quality and control steps they’d built into the process before releasing the new S8 — particularly around the battery.
That was just the warm-up act.
Samsung pushed the boundaries of biometric security beyond what is out there today — with a nod to the consumer as password. That includes some of what we’ve seen before — the S8 has a fingerprint scanner (located on the back of the phone) — but it also has some other options. The S8 has built-in Iris Scan as well as facial recognition, so that users can literally unlock their home screen just by looking at it.
But the phone itself is only part of the story — what the phone is built to do, and how it does it, were also big players in the show.
The world of voice-activated AI now has Samsung’s contribution — Bixby. But Bixby is billed as being a little different from other voice-activated “assistants” in the world today in that in that it looks inward more than it looks outward. Bixby doesn’t want to be a consumer’s “everything assistant” — if you want to know how tall the Eiffel Tower is, ask Alexa or Siri.
“The persona for Bixby that we’re pursuing is a bright sidekick, a much more friendly agent to users,” says Dr. Injong Rhee, Samsung’s head of research and development for software and services. “Bixby is capable of developing a new interface to our devices, or devices that are going to host Bixby. Our perspective is to make the interface of the phone simpler and more natural to use.”
That means Bixby is designed to make it easier for customers to “move” around their phone without a lot of navigating because Bixby was built to have context. Bixby, for example, can understand a command to “send this picture to …” without the user having to open up a lot of apps.
If one is reading about a destination in the web browser, then summons Bixby and says, “I want to go here,” Bixby gets what the user is talking about because it can “see” what the screen is showing.
Bixby is also built into the phone’s camera so that a user taking a picture of an object can be directed to any one of Samsung’s merchant partners to buy that item or one that’s similar. One of the partners noted on the screen when this was discussed was Amazon.
And, notes Rhee, Bixby is designed to tie into Samsung Connect — the one app that ties all of the products in Samsung’s ecosystem together so that everything from Samsung’s TVs to washing machines is eventually compatible with Bixby integration — all managed from one single dashboard. Apart from tying all of Samsung into one platform, Rhee noted, Bixby and Samsung Connect also create a space to tie non-Samsung products into that ecosystem.
“Having it on other devices, even competitors, is something we have to think about because that’s the future we’re heading towards,” Rhee noted.
Samsung Pay and Samsung Pass
Also getting a big push on stage yesterday was Samsung Pay, which is now up to 240 million transactions and 870 banks globally.
The big news of the day was Samsung’s strategic partnership with Visa Checkout that will allow consumers to shop online at the hundreds of thousands of merchants around the world where Visa Checkout is accepted. Users with fingerprint authentication-enabled Samsung devices will be able to click the Visa Checkout/Samsung Pay co-branded button and touch the fingerprint sensor and the payment will proceed instantly, without needing to enter a user name and password for each purchase.
“The days of filling out long forms or remembering usernames to make online purchases are continuing to wind down, as options like Visa Checkout’s open platform become accessible on hundreds of thousands of merchant sites and companies like Samsung see the value in simplifying the process for both consumers and merchants,” said Jim McCarthy, executive vice president, innovation and strategic partnerships, Visa Inc. “We are excited to extend the benefits of Samsung Pay from the mobile world to now also include online merchants, ensuring customers can pay everywhere Visa Checkout is accepted, on any device and in app.”
To compliment that effort — and to lower consumer friction — Samsung is also working on developing Samsung Pass as a standard universal and interoperable secure log-in to secure sites. Those sites include bank sites, eCommerce sites, and even healthcare sites — anywhere that sensitive information is stored and it is essential to authenticate the consumer with the highest degree of certainty. Samsung Pass partners are banks like Bank of America and card networks like Visa and Mastercard.
So did Samsung actually make the ostrich fly yesterday? That remains to be seen.
But Samsung certainly did minimally demonstrate that the Galaxy S8 is designed all the way through to deliver on what Samsung says it wants its latest phone to do: “let you do what you want to do, not what we made it to do.”
Which is to offer consumers not just a bunch of new ways to use their mobile phone, but to give consumers a tool with which to “unbox” their own thinking about its power to connect them to new experiences, securely, and with minimal friction.
So — evolution or revolution? Consumers get to decide that on April 21st when the phone is released. The real test will be when Apple releases its new handset later this year – and whether consumers and the market say … “Hmmm, looks just like the Samsung.”