Galaxy Note 7 reviews have hit the internet this week and the consensus among them is that it might be the best designed smartphone ever. Today I got my hands on this precious new device, and my skepticism has quickly morphed into geeky reverence for the sheer brilliance, unfailing symmetry, and outrageous efficiency of the Note 7's design. And what also strikes me is how far back you have to go to find the roots of its creation.
Read more: Samsung Galaxy Note 7 review
It was in January 2013, at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, that Samsung first introduced us to the idea of a phone with a screen that curves off on one side. It was eye-catching, sure, but it was also really rather pointless. It would take 20 months before Samsung could turn that single-curved handset into a real product with the Note Edge, and then a couple more years before we could behold the refined, exquisite Note 7 of today. Think about how much conviction and resilience a designer needs to have to continue believing in a project through years of naysaying cynicism.
In the past, I have been one of those voices that dismiss new hardware innovation without an immediately obvious advantage as being different for the sake of being different. That was exactly what Samsung's curved displays were at first. And even today, there's no functional user interface element that requires the curves, but ask anyone who's used the Note 7 for any length of time and they'll tell you that there's a very real user experience advantage. The phone just feels better, more coherent and deliberate in its creation, when its front and rear curves unite into a symmetrical, ergonomic shape.
Samsung experiments wildly, but refines judiciously
The original Galaxy Note, way back in 2011, was the start of a series of annual experiments from Samsung, usually timed to coincide with the IFA trade show in Berlin in September. In 2012, there was the Galaxy Camera, which was equal parts point-and-shoot camera and Android smartphone. Then in 2013, Samsung unveiled the Galaxy Gear, its first smartwatch of the modern era. 2014 gave us Samsung's first phones to use premium materials, highlighted by the gorgeous Galaxy Alpha, while 2015 produced the culmination of everything learned from the Galaxy Gear in the excellent Gear S2.
Were all of Samsung's efforts at creating new categories and products successful? Of course not; many of them flamed out commercially and frustrated early-adopter buyers. But that approach of developing products in the open by selling them — as opposed to Apple's secretive internal iteration — and turning consumers into beta testers is fundamental to Samsung's present success. Where the Korean company has most distinguished itself is in learning from its mistakes, correcting them, and delivering better products as a result. Some disappointed users here and there are collateral damage in the grand scheme of things, the cracked eggs necessary for cooking the omelette.
Turning the whole world into beta testers has its advantages
It's because Samsung had the courage to try something as out-there as the original Gear watch — whose integrated camera I still think is a cool, if entirely unpractical feature — that it could collect truly useful and meaningful feedback for its future projects. You don't get to the Gear S2 without the OG Gear, and you don't get to the Note 7 without the Note Edge, the Galaxy Alpha, or all the engineering legacy embodied by the Galaxy S series.
Part of me wonders where Microsoft might be today if it had shown similar conviction in developing its Courier concept and the more unique aspects of Windows Phone. Or whether Nokia might have survived had it built on the MeeGo-powered N9 instead of burying it as a dead end. Obviously, Samsung's in a more privileged position than its smaller rivals like HTC — who necessarily have to be more conservative with their tighter budgets and resources — but what Samsung's example shows today is the advantage of mixing ambitious experimentation with diligent refinement.
Celebrity astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson is fond of saying that we need some blue-sky thinking and seemingly outlandish technological developments that lack immediate practical applications. He's got a full list of NASA inventions that were first crafted for spacefaring and later adapted to everyday life, but for my purposes, it's sufficient to say that his reasoning is exactly what brought us the best phone of 2016 (so far). If Samsung wasn't bold and a little bit crazy in its prototype development, if its designers didn't sustain and refine their vision, we would be eyeing yet another flat slab — which might still have been awesome, but not quite as awesome as the Note 7.