Galaxy S8 launch marks pivotal moment for Samsung
Friday, March 31, 2017
In the early 1990s, Samsung was a growing company, but one whose products weren't well-known outside of its Asia.
That changed starting in 1993, when Samsung Chairman Lee Kun-hee summoned hundreds of company executives to a Frankfurt, Germany, hotel and gave an epic, three-day speech aimed at turning Samsung from a sleepy, second-rate manufacturer into a massive global brand synonymous with quality.
Inside Samsung, the speech went on to become known as the Frankfurt Declaration of 1993, and all employees are given a 200-page book summarizing the contents of Lee's loquacious event, according to a 2013 Bloomberg profile on the company.
In the quarter-century since, Samsung has grown to become one of the world's largest companies. Its 2016 revenues of more than $173 billion would rank about 50th in the world in gross domestic product if it were a singular country.
And while Samsung as a multinational conglomerate is responsible for tons of products and services even outside its consumer electronics wheelhouse, it has been best known in recent years for its renowned line of flagship Galaxy smartphones. That's also the product that now poses Samsung with perhaps its most pivotal moment since Lee proclaimed to the company in Germany, "Change everything except your wife and children."
On March 29, Samsung unveiled its latest in the Galaxy line, the S8. The Korean company typically unveils its new Galaxy models each spring, but this launch took on greater importance than curtain-raisers for recent flagship smartphone models after Samsung's awful 2016.
Last September, Samsung was forced to recall its Galaxy Note 7 phones that debuted in August after batteries in the devices repeatedly caught fire. Even after the initial recall, replacement Notes still were found to be in flames, leading to a complete halt of sales and manufacturing of the phablet.
The double recall represented a spectacular failure for a company that prides itself on quality control to an almost obsessive degree. Chairman Lee once ordered a bonfire of defective mid-1990s-era phones at the company's Gumi, South Korea, factory to make an example out of its employees.
The Note 7 debacle is estimated to have cost the conglomerate at least $5.3 billion. As if that wasn't enough, the phone fires, along with Apple's successful iPhone 7 debut, were responsible for Samsung losing its top spot in the smartphone market late last year. The last time Samsung was in the No. 2 spot was 2011, a year after the Samsung Galaxy line first hit shelves.
This all comes at a time when the smartphone market is hitting a sort of extended market weariness, with phones generally looking like their predecessors, and logical and gradual year-on-year upgrades in their camera pixels, display resolution and processing power generally on offer.
Even without the Note 7 disaster, the S8 launch would be important. With the Galaxy now representing the blackest mark in Samsung's recent history, the S8's success may be the difference between regained smartphone superiority and a continued decline.
For its part, the Galaxy S8 is a phone that, visually, does look to make something of a clean break with the past.
The most notable change Galaxy-brand lovers will notice is that the home button at the bottom of the phone, a fixture in all previous Galaxy models, is now gone. In its place is an on-screen button.
With the physical home button having gone the way of the dodo for more display space, as well as a curved screen at the edges and more perimeter space converted to screen space, the Galaxy S8 now comes in at a seemingly massive 5.8 inches, with the phablet S8+ at 6.2 inches. For comparison, the Galaxy S7 was 5.1 inches, with the phablet Note 7 at 5.7 inches.
But as Lauren Goode of The Verge writes, the display doesn't feel gaudy, "crammed into what feels like a normal-sized phone."
One of the reasons the handset doesn't feel phablet-sized is its unique aspect ratio, 18.5:9, an elongated departure from an 16:9 industry standard on many common smartphones. That could cause some minor issues with video apps, but gives the user more ability to view and control multiple apps simultaneously on the same screen.
In other ways, the advances on the S8 are fairly predictable, with improved cameras, facial recognition and a smaller and faster Snapdragon processor.
With the popularity of Amazon's Alexa, Apple's Siri and Microsoft's Cortana in the "personal assistant" realm of consumer tech, Samsung has its new entrant on the Galaxy S8 in "Bixby." However, the phone, as an Android device, will also be equipped with Google's Assistant. Therefore, Bixby has a very real risk of being forgotten by a tech user base familiar with Google functionalities.
In a smartphone market that has become pretty stale, the Samsung Galaxy S8 has the visual potential and enough differences from past Galaxy models to shake things up and leave the Note 7 battery scandal truly extinguished once it goes on sale April 21. However, other aspects of its launch could also give the consumer enough vibes that it's just another new smartphone with nothing abundantly special about it.
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