"I may not be the best public speaker," says Samsung’s Korean-born JK Shin in a heavily accented English. "That's because my first language is engineering." These endearingly self-effacing words, uttered during the recent Galaxy S6 launch event, encapsulate the new, humbler identity that Samsung is building for itself. Korea’s foremost chaebol has responded to slumping mobile sales over the past year with a round of wide-reaching reforms, most notable among which is the way it now communicates with its customers.
Update: Galaxy S6 review.
Gone are the live orchestras and grandiose theatrics of former product presentations. The new Samsung gets to the point quickly and delivers a clear and concise message. You want amazing photos in all circumstances? Here’s a pair of cameras with f/1.9 lenses and lightning-quick operation. You want performance, power efficiency, and the best possible display? Here’s the world’s first 14nm processor, multi-standard wireless charging, and the most pixel-dense display ever put on a smartphone.
Samsung is finally connecting its overwhelming specs to the real world
In the place of strained metaphors about quad-core processors being akin to four wind turbines, Samsung is now appealing to consumers with facts and numbers that matter. The Galaxy S6 recharges twice as fast as the iPhone 6. Samsung’s metal is "50 percent stronger" than that used in other phones and "will not bend." These are the things that people care to know. Instead of trying to sell us on gimmicky and overwrought features, Samsung has returned to the more reliable strategy of addressing the needs we already have. That’s the same approach that Apple took when it expanded its iPhone lineup last year with some long overdue larger devices, and the payoff for that move was the biggest sales success in corporate history.
During the Galaxy S6 launch event, I could scarcely believe my eyes as I watched Samsung’s litany of menu options melting away, leaving only the most essential stuff. Samsung is embracing Google’s Material Design — and its underlying philosophy of clarity and simplicity — by streamlining its software customizations and additions. Do I trust that the next Galaxy experience will be as awesomely clean and cohesive as a Nexus running Google’s pure Android Lollipop? No. But consider how far Samsung has come from the days when Google had to call it in to ask that it curtail its excessive (and excessively ugly) tweaks to the Android interface.
Half of the Galaxy S6 presentation was done by women, without dumbing anything down
The new Samsung is also showing greater sensitivity to criticism, with the first two presenters at the S6 event being women. Excepting JK Shin, who as Samsung Mobile CEO pretty much had to be there, Samsung’s S6 launch was split evenly between female and male presenters. It’s taken a whole two years after the sexist fiasco that was the Galaxy S4 launch, but the Korean company is finally gesturing toward being gender-neutral. The women on stage in Barcelona weren’t mere props with a pulse. They set out as much technical information as their male counterparts, and their attire was professional rather than provocative.
At some point between the launch of last year’s Galaxy S5 and this year’s S6, Samsung hired somebody with taste. It’s been great to watch the company that had grown infamous with its cheap plastic phones turning to better design and materials. The best Galaxy Note to date owes much of its appeal to the simple yet effective addition of a new metal frame. The Galaxy Alpha was a short-lived but universally appreciated device that looked and felt better than anything Samsung had previously produced. And now the Galaxy S6 arrives, and it’s the most exciting Samsung smartphone since the Galaxy S II. All of this has been accompanied by a marketing campaign that’s smart and savvy and actually makes me want to learn more about Samsung’s products.
There are lingering traces of the old Samsung, but the 2015 version is a dramatic upgrade in most respects
I like the new Samsung, and I like the direction in which it’s headed. That being said, fragments of the old remain. The Galaxy S6 Edge, like the Note Edge before it, exists mostly to show off Samsung’s technical leadership — which is also the primary motivation for why the new phones have a ridiculous Quad HD resolution. The regular Galaxy S6 design looks like it’s taken plenty of inspiration from Apple’s latest iPhone, doing little to quell the persistent critique of Samsung being the world’s most successful Apple copycat.
Samsung is still far from perfect, but the actions it’s taken to rejuvenate and reform itself have been for the better. The company that couldn’t stop releasing smartwatches through 2014 opted against introducing yet another one at Mobile World Congress, dedicating the show to its all-important new smartphone. Samsung’s next smartwatch will be a "more perfect" device, signaling a new emphasis on quality rather than quantity of products. Sure, you can read that as a cynical move to wait to copy the Apple Watch, but I’m willing to believe that there are people working within Samsung who are finally realizing the folly of its former carpet-bombing efforts.
Design is no longer just a buzzword
Faltering giants, such as Samsung was last year, do not last long. They either adapt and improve or, by virtue of their size, crash to the ground in epic fashion. Everything I’ve seen from Samsung in the past few months shows a company determined to avoid the latter fate.
"Some companies have set themselves apart through design," acknowledges a thoughtful JK Shin before unveiling Samsung’s latest phones. "Others through practicality. But people want both." At long last, after years of iterating on an unappealing but profitable Galaxy design, Samsung has been moved to act on the idealistic slogans it likes to endorse. The silly old taglines like "designed for humans" have been replaced by the simple "next is now." It’s a motto that speaks to the urgency of Samsung’s situation and the immediacy of its new improvements.
Verge Video: Samsung Galaxy S6 hands-on from MWC 2015