The only people who have had a more annus horribilis than President Jacob Zuma are Samsung.
Although they are a giant chaebol that makes everything from smartphones to jet fuel, and despite accounting for a fifth of South Korea’s exports, they had a torrid time in the past year. First their flagship Note 7 phablet began exploding last year and was ultimately recalled, costing an estimated US$6bn in lost sales. This year its heir apparent was arrested and charged with corruption, in a scandal that saw South Korea’s president Park Geun-hye lose her job and face impeachment (if only that was Zuma’s fate).
Just before the annual cellphone extravaganza that is the Mobile World Congress in February, Samsung admitted what went wrong with the batteries inside the Note 7. It forewent the launch madness in Barcelona; which was won by Chinese manufacturer Huawei and its impressive P10 smartphone with its dual Leica f1.9 lenses
To all these crises and scandals, Samsung needed a good answer with its flagship smartphone, the Galaxy S8. And last week, to rapturous applause in a glittering New York launch, that is what it received. The new phones (including the larger-screened S8+) have no bezel around the much bigger screens, a new voice assistant (called Bixby) and no more physical button nor Samsung branding on the front.
The fingerprint reader has moved to the back of the phone, where the 12-megapixel camera (and the front-facing 8MP selfie cam) has a f1.7 aperture (the best on the market right now) and the handset uses the new USB Type-C adaptor that charges faster and is reversible (so it doesn’t matter which way you plug it in). Samsung has even produced the first 10 nanometre processor, making the phone slimmer and more efficient. It unveiled a new 360 camera to shoot surround pictures and has included facial recognition as n unlock feature. It also introduced a clever docking-station called DeX that turns the phone into a desktop computer with a big screen, mouse and keyboard. Personally, I think this DeX idea is the most interesting, especially for a journalist, but more about that once I’ve tested it.
But it is the high-resolution screen that is the much-trumpeted star of the show. Without the bezel, the S8’s 5.5in screen is bigger but the phone smaller; making it the same overall size as arch-rival Apple’s top-end iPhone 7 Plus. It really is a good screen, something that Samsung – which makes both its own and Apple’s iPhone screens – has always been good at. These may appear like “so-what” features but this is what bragging rights are all about.
But in a smartphone market that has plateaued there are many who will call this innovation; and just as many that will call these upgrades or features.
Samsung, which sells the most smartphones in the world, needed something big. This fits the bill. There are already commentators saying the Note 7 debacle will be quickly forgotten in the marketing madness of the S8 launch, and that Samsung’s vast portfolio of products make the ship too big to sink. Time will tell.
This column first appeared in Financial Mail