Unpacked2020: Samsung Pushed the Envelope on 5G, Foldables and Partnerships

on February 12, 2020

Between the leaks and the Oscars ads, very little was left unknown about the lineup that Samsung presented in San Francisco at Unpacked 2020. Like I often say, though, it is in how a company talks about its products that helps you understand the vision sometimes even more so than the product themselves.

The event marked the first appearance of TM Roh as the new Head of Samsung Mobile. Roh will report into DJ Koh, who is now supervising the broader mobile business focusing on the whole ecosystem and future business. It was interesting that Roh did not kick off the event, instead, he seemed to ease onto the stage after the big reveal of the Galaxy Z Flip to outline the big picture of the role Samsung wants to play over the next ten years moving from a technology enabler to an experience enabler.

A Strong Statement on 5G 

I still feel that talking about 5G as something that consumers want rather than something that vendors and carriers are pushing remains difficult. Despite having the full Galaxy S20 family on 5G, Samsung did not spend much time talking about the technology and instead used one simple use case that spoke very clearly to all the people who were tuned into the event live stream: the event itself was being broadcasted live from a Galaxy S20 Ultra! Yes, I know I am sure the network was optimized for it but what better way to show what is possible to content creators who will also consider the Galaxy S20 for its video camera capabilities?

Qualcomm was out in force at the event with Cristiano Amon and Stephen Mollenkopf both attending. The Galaxy S20+ and the Galaxy S20 Ultra both run on the Snapdragon 865 and X55 5G modem, the first 5G platform that provides multi-band and multi-mode support. Carriers and vendors have talked a lot about future-proofing your smartphone purchase, but these two devices are really the first ones that allow you to do that.

Embracing 5G across the flagship line allows Samsung to capitalize on the problematic position Huawei finds itself with the lack of Google services on their devices. In markets like Europe, where carriers are pushing strongly on 5G, Samsung has the opportunity to win back share from Huawei and in China, it makes their line up much more appealing, especially with the Galaxy S20 Ultra.

Who is the Right Audience for Foldables?

It is interesting to see Samsung deliver a different fordable design in the Galaxy Z Flip together with a different focus on the target audience. With the Galaxy Fold, there was a focus on productivity, an unfolding of a phone into a tablet kind of experience. The primary target audience was early tech adopters with a focus on productivity on the go.

With the Z Flip, I see the addressable market be more female, more fashion-conscious, possibly looking for a wearable experience that unfolds into a fully-fledged smartphone. I am not advocating to wear the latest Samsung foldable around your neck as a pendant. I am suggesting that maybe when closed, the Z Flip will keep you in control in a similar way a wearable does without sucking you into the phone. It might appeal to those users who were finding the Palm concept of a detox phone interesting.

So much of how the Z Flip was introduced on stage gives away the addressable market: a female presenter, the color line up, the words used to describe it “compact” like makeup, even the availability date of February 14 and its appearance at New York Fashion Week.

While some people already talk about brands being late to the foldable party, we are just getting started and vendors are still trying to figure out who the best addressable market is and whether the same category can address different needs. The life-style focus does not take away from the tech that has gone into the Z Flip hardware, including the first foldable glass. The design, however, does not require the user to learn what the device can do differently for them as it is the case with the Galaxy Fold. Samsung has clearly put quite a bit of effort into designing the software and hardware to create new use cases like Flex Mode, where the Z Flip can fold at a 90-degree angle to sit on a surface and be used for a video call or to take a selfie. Once the Z Flip unfolds, however, the user is left with the familiarity of a traditional phone, albeit a large one, and with the same broad Android app ecosystem.

Some people might question why someone wants to spend $1380 mostly based on looks, and to those, I would say that putting a price tag on cool is nearly impossible. There is a strong visceral appeal to the Z Flip that will make it easier to justify the price. Of course, if celebrities embrace is, which is highly likely, the status will grow even more for the product. 

The “Open Collaboration” Strategy is Working

DJ Koh has been very vocal over the past year on wanting to position Samsung as a great partner and he often referred to their “open collaboration.” At the event, Samsung showcased a strong line up of partners, on stage, we had Netflix, Spotify, Microsoft Xbox and Google. All not just doing lip service to the collaboration but highlighting some of the partnerships aimed at delivering content or experiences uniquely developed for Samsung. This is another point of strength that Samsung can bring to its battle against Huawei.

The best example of how the current market dynamics are reshaping alliances was best highlighted by the presence on stage of Hiroshi Lockheimer, who, for so many, is synonymous with Android. Lockheimer spent time talking about the relationship Google and Samsung built, but also underlining his personal relationship with TM Roh dating back to 2010. We have not seen Google on stage at a Samsung event in such a high-level capacity for quite some time. Taking part in Unpacked2020 reflects how more dependent Android is on Samsung in the high end, especially in the US market, but also how much less interested Samsung is in creating an ecosystem that is less dependent on Google services.

 

Many more product launches are yet to come including those of Apple’s first 5G models expected in the second half of the year. Yet, what we saw in San Francisco this week puts Samsung in a much more competitive spot than the company was a year ago. The Galaxy S20 family offers a strong upgrade for current Galaxy users as well as for Android users looking for an alternative to Huawei. In addition, the price drop on the Galaxy S10 line opens up a path to upgrade for users who might be more price-conscious or maybe just not interested in running at a 5G speed.