All eyes on Samsung as the Galaxy S8 launches
By Chong Jinn Xiung March 29, 2017
- Breakneck pace of innovation may have pushed batteries to their limit
- Samsung’s own digital assistant Bixby to help differentiate Galaxy S8
EVERY year like clockwork, Samsung releases two flagship smartphones: the first quarter of the year is usually the time it unboxes the latest S series flagship smartphone while in the third quarter, closer to the holidays, the Note series will be announced.
This cycle of releases went on uninterrupted for nearly five years as the South Korean smartphone maker grew from strength to strength, edging its way to the coveted number one smartphone maker spot and pushing aside its fierce rival, Apple.
But the unthinkable happened when a series of reports said that the newly-launched Galaxy Note 7 phablets, or large screen smartphones with displays that measure from 5.5 -6.9-inch in size, were catching fire.
The following global recall in September failed to rectify the problem as some of the replacement devices faced the same problem.
This ultimately led to Samsung taking the drastic move of scrapping the Note 7 line entirely, a painful move that resulted in losses amounting to an estimated US$5 billion (knocking US$2.3 billion off its operating profit and forecast another US$3.1 billion operating profit for six months through March 2017) and drastically impacting its reputation.
A recent poll by Harris shows that Samsung fell from being the seventh most reputable brand in the US to the 49th.
There is a chance that Samsung may have tried to cram its components a bit too tightly though the company ultimately pointed the finger at battery manufacturers, said Ovum senior analyst for consumer technology Daniel Gleeson.
The reason for this mad rush to innovate lies in the fact that Samsung has a shorter product development life cycle between nine to 11 months Gleeson revealed. Understandably, the pace to innovate is quicker as Samsung has two flagships to launch in a year.
The need to stand out from the competition is primarily what has driven vendors to keep coming up with advancements at a breakneck pace. Innovations in smartphone batteries is something all vendors strive for but they also need to consider the safety of end-users and not just rush out the “next coolest phone”.
The impact of the Note 7
Despite the fallout from the Note 7 incident, Gleeson notes that Samsung continue to sell millions of smartphones. In fact, the company posted an operating profit of US$26 billion despite the incident as it was driven by its memory and display panel segments.
The recall had hurt the company but Samsung is still the leading Android player with the scale, technology and marketing budget to carry huge influence. But this weakness has opened the door for its competition to make a play for the premium Android segment.
Gartner research director Werner Goertz notes that the Note 7 is not a high-volume product like the Galaxy S7. Samsung as a whole is not limited to just smartphones but it also stretches out to the semiconductor and memory business too.
Interestingly, in emerging markets like Malaysia, the Note 7 was not a key selling device and brand share remains strong as they were focusing on their more affordable Galaxy J series to drive shipments, argues IDC Asia Pacific market analyst for client devices Jensen Ooi.
Samsung's brand retention was also helped by the fact that it kept the Galaxy S7 and S7 Edge in the spotlight to replace the gap left by the Note 7 in its lineup.
Counterpoint Research associate director Tarun Pathak agrees that Samsung took the right approach in limiting the impact of the Note 7 debacle by offering discounts on the S7 series to ensure that not many users would drift away.
“At the time of a crisis, the best a brand can do is to be as transparent as it can be and Samsung can share some of its learning in the coming S8 launch event,” says Pathak.
Enter the Galaxy S8
Speaking of the Galaxy S8, Samsung’s first flagship smartphone for 2017 is without a doubt the phone maker’s most important release in many years.
Understandably, Samsung must be paranoid at this point as it absolutely must get the Galaxy S8 launch right in order to maintain its market-leading position.
Already, a multitude of competitors are waiting in the wings. IDC’s Quarterly Mobile Phone Tracker report points out that the Chinese vendors like Huawei, Oppo and Vivo have made significant gains in 2016 to take up residence in the top five smartphone maker spots.
Samsung’s Android competitors have already launched their own flagships during Mobile World Congress last month and it is expected that these rivals will steal some market share in the early months of 2017.
But Samsung’s delayed response was likely to make absolutely sure that it gets this launch right, according to Gleeson.
The consequence of a repeat problem with batteries will be more dire than a couple of weeks of lost sales.
IDC Asia Pacific’s Ooi agrees that the stakes are high for Samsung as it needs to assure end-users that they are in full control this time and the Note 7 fiasco will not happen again.
“The market would be less forgiving this time if the battery issue or any other hardware issue crops up again,” he said.
With their brand equity at stake, Samsung can’t afford to cut corners. Already Samsung has been heavily investing in their marketing with regular adverts to reassure and remind end-users that their products are safe.
Gleeson agrees that Samsung has taken extreme measures to implement rigorous testing processes for its batteries.
Samsung announced in January that it will employ more stringent quality assurance tests, no doubt to prevent similar accidents from happening again.
This includes the introduction of an eight-point battery safety check focusing, employ multi-layer safety measures and even formed a battery advisory group of external experts.
As a result, he believes the chance of a repeat battery issue is very low but the advancement of technology and market demands will continue to put pressure on the design limitations of today’s batteries.
This is not just limited to Samsung but to every other handset manufacturer; they will all need to remain very cautious with their batteries.
Hopefully one day, new battery technologies such as a “solid-state” battery design that can hold more energy and recharge quicker without the risk of exploding, may spell the end of our battery woes.
What to expect of the S8
There is a need for balance between quality and innovation without sacrificing one for the other.
According to Gleeson, the new Galaxy S8 is likely to build on the hardware improvements of the Note 7 but one key new feature in the flagship is the inclusion of Bixby, Samsung’s very own digital voice assistant that aims to go toe-to-toe with the likes of Google Assistant, Microsoft’s Cortana and Apple’s Siri.
For the uninitiated, Samsung has acquired artificial intelligence firm Viv, run by Dag Kittlaus, the co-creator of Apple’s Siri. Bixby is touted to go beyond simple actions like launching an app and performs a full range of interactions by understanding natural language.
This essentially allowing you to speak to it naturally and the big benefit is that you would be able to use an app with just the sound of your voice.
Samsung has even bigger plans for Bixby and wants to spread it across its range of devices.
“It is a risky strategy for Samsung but one that ensures that its investment will not be usurped by Google in the medium term as well as offering clear differentiation in the short term,” Gleeson pointed out.
To Gartner’s Goertz the S8 will be more of an evolutionary step instead of a revolutionary device though the tighter integration of cloud-based virtual assistants like Bixby into all aspects of our lives is a key trend of 2017.
However, Bixby could also be a double-edged sword as the hype built around it could be used against it should the digital assistant fall short of expectations as Ooi points out.
He also suspects the other notable difference in the upcoming S8 is that it merges a flat screen and edge display into one curved/edge screen with a thinner bezel variant in the works.
If rumours and leaks are to be believed Samsung may blow up the S8’s proportions opting for an extra-large 6.2-inch phablet in addition to a 5.7-inch variant in their portfolio, which is significantly bigger than the 5.1-inch and 5.5-inch display from the Galaxy S7 series.
Samsung may also be taking a different route with the S8 as it is taking aim at facial-recognition technology as well as iris-reading for enhanced security purposes as well as enabling more secure mobile payments.
On top of fingerprint reading, iris and facial detection capabilities are a bonus as phones can use iris detection when there’s not enough ambient light to recognise facial features.
All in all, Samsung has a lot riding on the S8 launch and if it plays its cards right and the S8 lives up to consumer expectations this could translate to market share gains and most importantly the trust of its customers.