What Samsung Needs to Show Us with the Galaxy S8

On Wednesday of this week, Samsung will unveil the Galaxy S8, its latest flagship smartphone, at an event in New York. Along with a couple of other members of the Tech.pinions team, I’ll be at the event and I’ve been asked quite often by reporters over the last few days what Samsung needs to do this week to ensure the S8 does well. As such, I thought I’d share with Insiders a little of what I’ve been saying in response to that question.

The Shadow of the Note7

The shadow of the Note7 fires and resulting recall looms large over this event, as Samsung’s first big launch since that unraveled. As such, I thought it was unfortunate that Samsung put out news this week about recycling and potentially refurbishing and selling the recalled Note7 devices. That seems guaranteed to start the week off with more worries about a failed device rather than a focus on this week’s announcements.

But the Note7 hangs over the event in other ways too. I’m almost certain Samsung will (and should) devote at least a few minutes of stage time talking through its new quality, and especially battery, testing processes as a way to reassure potential buyers. While it’s unfortunate the Note7 has to be brought up at all, the reality is the S8 will be the first important phone Samsung announces since the Note7 debuted. As such, Samsung needs to show what’s changed and can’t assume potential buyers will have read its report or watched its event earlier this year. Above all, Samsung needs to convince would-be buyers the Note7 incidents were a one-off and the S8 will be totally safe, as its previous phones have been.

Solid Upgrade Material

Once all that is past, however, Samsung needs to show off a really solid device which makes a strong case for upgrades from older devices, especially the S6 and earlier models people might still be hanging onto. What we’ve seen in the US in particular (but in other mature markets recently) is a slowing and lengthening of the upgrade cycle. Samsung needs to convince buyers to upgrade to the S8 and not wait out the cycle in hopes of a better S9 next year. The latest iPhones are strong competitors and there are growing rumors about big design changes and other new features coming this fall, so this phone has to stack up well against those rumors too.

The good news is Samsung has demonstrated it’s able to produce really compelling devices. Even the Note7 was extremely well reviewed initially, with a number of reviewers calling it either the best Android phone ever or the best phone available. Obviously, it turned out to have a major flaw but the things that made it compelling could easily make their way into the Galaxy S8 as well. Samsung knows how to make a good looking, quality piece of hardware at this point and it looks like we’re going to get some interesting design changes to go along with what I assume will be decent under the hood improvements.

Reasons to Buy

Above all then, Samsung needs to give existing Galaxy S buyers and potential newcomers to the platform reasons to buy this device rather than either hanging onto the device they have for a bit longer or looking elsewhere. We’ve already seen the pre-announcement of the Bixby assistant which, as I wrote in our News piece last week, was an interesting choice. But that takes some of the wind out of the sails of this week’s announcement. I had expected the new virtual assistant to be a headliner, but it also avoids any disappointment with regard to the lack of integration of Viv features and sets expectations appropriately. But, for most of us, this week will be the first time we actually get to see Bixby in action. So this is Samsung’s chance to show why the approach it chose is better than their competitors’ and why buyers should use it rather than the Google Assistant that will likely also come preinstalled. Samsung will need to avoid its tendency toward heavy-handed user interface elements and tacky or gimmicky features in favor of a focus on true utility and ease of use.

Beyond Bixby, we need to see compelling upgrades in other areas. Design is clearly going to be one of those, with much smaller bezels a recurring theme in this year’s smartphone launches and likely to show up here again. The big tradeoff is the home button probably moving off the front of the phone and either onto the back or embedded into the screen. That could be a total non-issue if it’s done well, or it could be a source of significant inconvenience for users – a home button on the back of a device can’t be pressed (or a fingerprint recognized) if the device is lying face-up on a table, for example, and users may not always hold a phone with a finger resting in the middle of the back, where a rear home button is likely to be. So the excitement of a new design mustn’t be offset with disappointment or frustration over usability – this has to be a win/win, not a win/lose.

It looks like we’ll likely get some camera improvements, though nothing as dramatic as Apple’s recent shift to including two cameras on the larger iPhone and the accompanying portrait mode. Other phones have, of course, managed similar features with just one camera, such as the Google Pixel, but those have been less user-friendly and often also less effective in achieving the desired effect. On the other hand, Samsung’s cameras have recently become as good as Apple’s in other ways, after many years of lagging behind, and have emphasized areas such as low-light performance where iPhones haven’t always performed as well. The front-facing camera is an interesting area of focus – we’ve tended to hear much more about selfies from Asian phone makers than American ones in recent years but for at least certain segments, those front-facing cameras are important in the US too.

Beyond that, it’s down to overall performance improvements and other new software features as well as integration with other products. It’s likely we’ll see Samsung provide more details about its new Gear VR hardware, which it offered a glimpse of at MWC last month. We might get more accessories too, including a new Gear 360 camera. But would-be buyers need to know the new phone will be quicker and more powerful when handling both everyday tasks and more intensive ones like VR gaming as well.

The Stakes are High

The stakes are always high with a new flagship from any company, let alone the world’s largest smartphone maker. But they’re particularly high this year, for three reasons. First, the Note7 recall and the ongoing brand fallout from that event. Second, this launch coming in the wake of a strong iPhone launch and in anticipation of what could be an even stronger one later this year. But thirdly, the smartphone market globally continues to lag as mature markets approach saturation and upgrade rates slow down. In that context, a new smartphone needs to really stand out to sell more than its predecessors and the default will be lower sales rather than parity or growth over the prior year.

Samsung must, therefore, focus on a clear value proposition for upgraders and switchers while providing as few reasons as possible for people to avoid this device. Apple took a risk in removing the headphone jack in the iPhone 7 line, but doesn’t seem to have suffered. But if a move of the home button to the back of the device or higher pricing (as has been rumored recently) act as disincentives to buy, those could cancel out all the incremental feature upgrades we’ll likely see.

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Jan Dawson

Jan Dawson is Founder and Chief Analyst at Jackdaw Research, a technology research and consulting firm focused on consumer technology. During his sixteen years as a technology analyst, Jan has covered everything from DSL to LTE, and from policy and regulation to smartphones and tablets. As such, he brings a unique perspective to the consumer technology space, pulling together insights on communications and content services, device hardware and software, and online services to provide big-picture market analysis and strategic advice to his clients. Jan has worked with many of the world’s largest operators, device and infrastructure vendors, online service providers and others to shape their strategies and help them understand the market. Prior to founding Jackdaw, Jan worked at Ovum for a number of years, most recently as Chief Telecoms Analyst, responsible for Ovum’s telecoms research agenda globally.

7 thoughts on “What Samsung Needs to Show Us with the Galaxy S8”

  1. We already know a few things (well, most everything really):
    – all models will be of the Edge variety, ie curved bezel-less sides. Gives them a nice exclusive look, at the cost of durability and practicality. Samsung learned the fashion matters. Alas for me.
    – the most controversial feature is the ID sensor at the back right next to the camera.
    – Samsung’s cameras have been *better* than the iPhone’s for a couple of generations now. Has have the screen, the battery, the storage, the charging options (fast + wireless), and the design. Not the single-thread performance nor the updates though. Sound quality has been a somewhat weak point, especially compared to LG.
    – the Qualcomm 835 is starting to be documented. It’s not the disappointment the 810 was, but not a huge upgrade either (30-ish percents in general performance, with some much brighter spots and some regressions too). It’ll be interesting to see if the Exynos has the same performance profile.
    – There’ll be a Desktop dock again, not that the one for the previous generations had much of an impact. Better integrated and stronger push this time ?
    – Bixby will have to very good to displace gAssistant. Samsung has been trying to create an ecosystem of devices, with their smartwatches especially having bonus features when used with a Samsung phone. I’m sure there’ll be something along those lines again, but what they’ve mostly achieved is to make their smartwatches inferior when *not* used with a Samsung phone. I’m curious if forsaking the larger Android market in favor of the higher-spending Samsung submarket makes sense.

    The S8’s job is hard since it has to fight a 4 fronts
    – do-nothing. Most people around me now wait for their phones to break/get lost. But probably not the “flagship” crowd.
    – other Android flagships. Samsung’s job here is made a bit easier by their lock on early 835 production runs. Shades of Apple’s monopsony with early iPhones/iPads.
    – Android’s midrange. It’s getting ever harder to justify flagship prices, with midrangers and last year’s flagships coming very close to the performance, at half to a quarter of the price. The 2yo Xiaomi Redmi Note 3 Pro ($180) has the same CPU core as the 835. Looks, camera, and VR have an increasingly hard job to do to convince upsell (upbuy ?)
    – iPhone. Though there’ll be so much Samsung in the next one, it’s probably very profitable for Samsung too ^^

    We’ve recently been told that flagships are a decreasing share of Samsung’s sales. I’m curious how much of that is the Note issue (not just because of the Note itself but also because it gave Samsung a fresh second flagship 6 months after the S launch), and how much is a deeper market trend.

    1. “iPhone. Though there’ll be so much Samsung in the next one, it’s probably very profitable for Samsung too”

      There’s truth to this. Apple creates a lot of value, not only for users/customers but in the supply chain, the overall ecosystem, accessories, and more. A rising tide and so forth.

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