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After the smoke clears: inside Samsung's quest for redemption

The Galaxy S8 is Samsung’s most ambitious project yet

“We have a dream to overcome Apple.”

With that simple, obvious statement, the air was sucked out of the large conference room in Samsung’s Suwon, South Korea, headquarters before the company even had a chance to show me the device I flew halfway across the world to see. It’s not often that you hear someone at Samsung actually verbalize the unsaid motivation for many of the company’s products — most executives won’t even mention Apple by name. Yet here was the company’s vice president of product strategy just blurting it out to a small group of journalists.

The dream he is referring to specifically is the Galaxy S8, which after three years of development was officially announced today. Dream happened to be the codename of this project, as Samsung’s president of mobile communications, DJ Koh, elaborated on later: “All of the mingling and aggregation [of work we did on previous phones] comes true with the S8 and S8 Plus. That's the reason we put the name as like a Dream, rather than thinking of other competitors or other phone manufacturers.”

For the past few years, Samsung’s actual dream has been to step out from the shadow of its most well-known competitor, to no longer be just the foil to Apple and the iPhone, but a company defined by its own terms. And in many measurable ways, Samsung has already accomplished that. It’s the largest phone maker in the world, and it moves millions more units than Apple does each year. It often pioneers technologies in its devices long before they show up in the iPhone. It has the ability to source virtually all of the major components for a smartphone from a subsidiary.

But by the metric of public perception, the Galaxy S line of smartphones have always played second fiddle to the iPhone, always seen as a response, not the original. Inaccurate or not, beating that perception has been a goal — even a dream — for Samsung.

Of course, life within Samsung’s walls for the past half a year has been closer to a nightmare.

Photo: Samsung

If you’ve never seen a phone battery explode in person, it’s an arresting experience. First, the battery swells and expands well beyond its normal size. Then the swollen battery starts glowing a hot red, before finally bursting into flames. The whole process happens in about 30 seconds, leaving you barely enough time to react. What’s left afterward is a charred piece of stinking metal and plastic and probably some damaged property, or worse, injured people.

That exact scenario played out dozens of times last fall, when Samsung’s Galaxy Note 7 had to be recalled not once, but twice, in one of the most embarrassing episodes in tech history. The Note 7 situation sucked the wind out of Samsung’s remarkably successful year, and turned Samsung into the butt of countless exploding phone jokes.

"That was a very painful experience and painful accident,” DJ Koh says with remorse. “During the investigation of the root cause of the Note 7 [incident], I learned there was an opportunity for us to increase the safety of our devices and batteries.”

Koh, who had his hands deep in Samsung’s mobile business long before he was appointed president last year, was disappointed by the company’s failures. “We set up our own standard, but we didn't keep our standard,” he admits.

Samsung president of mobile communications, DJ Koh.
Photo by Dan Seifert / The Verge

The first time I saw a battery explode was in a controlled environment: Samsung was giving me a tour of its battery-testing facilities in Gumi, South Korea, in the wake of the recalls. As part of its expanded testing parameters, the company checks long-term usage simulations, including the various ways a battery can be damaged and cause an explosion. One particular machine puts pressure on a battery cell with a large piston; if you happen to put nearly twice the amount of pressure of Samsung’s accepted safety threshold, the battery will combust inside the machine’s chamber.

For the sake of demonstration, Samsung’s engineer did just that. The battery didn’t explode at first; in fact, it appeared that the battery was just fine and the tour guide moved on. But about a minute later, the cell started swelling and glowing bright red, before bursting into flames and settling as a charred scrap of electronics.

Had this not been a demonstration, Samsung would have rejected the entire batch that this battery came from and sent them all back to the supplier. That was a common refrain I heard when touring Samsung’s battery-testing facilities: if one battery fails a single test, it means as many as 15,000 would be rejected and sent back.

To ensure that the Note 7 situation never happens again, and to make sure the Galaxy S8 rights the course for Samsung’s phone division, the company has greatly expanded its battery-testing processes. It has outlined an eight-point battery-inspection checklist, which includes both new and expanded testing. Not content letting its suppliers do the majority of testing, Samsung now duplicates tests within its own facilities, acting as another backstop to detect and identify any failures before they end up in customers’ hands.

Photo: Samsung

There are rows of testing stations in the Gumi factory where the company can test discharge the batteries in up to 60,000 phones at once. These testing stations are replicated in the company’s factories across the world, including China and Vietnam. Ironically, the tests are recorded using recalled Note 7s, suspended in selfie sticks above the rows of discharging phones. Presumably, these phones are safe to use.

Samsung has also created a new “Accelerated Usage Test,” which is designed to replicate normal usage patterns over time. The AUT covers charging, discharging, water exposure, and typical things people do with their phones, like connecting to Wi-Fi and Bluetooth networks, placing calls, and using social media apps. The company employs dozens of people to run through these tests over and over again on 100,000 devices to ensure there are no problems. It doesn’t appear to be a very enjoyable job.

Samsung demonstrated all of these tests to me in an effort to prove that the company is taking battery safety far more seriously than it had in the past. Before Samsung can make its dream of stepping out of Apple’s shadow true, it first needs to prove to would-be customers that the Note 7 fiasco won’t happen again. It’s doing that by communicating — and over-communicating — its testing procedures at every opportunity.

“My main focus was how can we deliver meaningful innovation to the consumer to make their life happy and enjoyable, but the most important thing I missed the was product safety,” says Koh. “Meaningful innovation will keep going, but on top of it will be a priority of product safety.”

“Meaningful innovation” is what Samsung hopes will lift it out of the mire of both the Note 7 fiasco and out from the shadow of Cupertino. The company has long been a pioneer in hardware innovation and that certainly continues with the S8. But this time around, there’s as much of an emphasis on software and services as there is on the hardware itself, and Samsung knows that if it’s going to succeed at all, it can’t just make devices that run other companies’ software and platforms.

The company has long struggled to balance including compelling software features that people actually want to use and adding value to its own hardware offerings. There’s an entire graveyard of failed Samsung services and software, including the ill-conceived Milk Music and Milk Video and countless gimmicky camera and interface features. For anybody who tried Samsung's ridiculous "smart scroll" features that tried to automatically pan content around based on tilting your phone or your eye movements, your level of trust in trying the latest Samsung "feature" is very low.

But in recent years, the company has had success with services such as Samsung Pay and Samsung Knox, both of which provide utility and good customer experiences. The S8 comes with those, of course, but it’s adding a number of new services to its stable in order to stand out from the crowd.

The most ambitious of these is Samsung’s spin on a virtual assistant, dubbed Bixby. It’s the company’s entry into the super hot virtual assistant world, which has been dominated by Google, Microsoft, Amazon, Facebook, and yes, Apple. But while many of the virtual assistants we’ve seen thus far have been based on providing different ways to perform web searches, Samsung’s approach is notably different.

Samsung’s Bixby assistant on the S8.

“The persona for Bixby that we’re pursuing is a bright sidekick, a much more friendly agent to users,” says Dr. Injong Rhee, Samsung’s head of research and development for software and services. “Bixby is capable of developing a new interface to our devices, or devices that are going to host Bixby. Our perspective is to make the interface of the phone simpler and more natural to use.”

It's a smart play: Samsung knows it can’t compete with Google, Microsoft, Amazon, and others when it comes to raw machine learning power and putting vast amounts of information at your fingertips, so it’s using Bixby to solve a simpler task, one that those companies have largely ignored. Bixby isn't going to try to be the everything-assistant. Instead, it will be that "bright sidekick" that complements those other services. It's a new user interface, not a new way to ask how tall the Eiffel Tower is.

Rhee seems like the right person to head up Samsung’s nascent artificial intelligence arm, and he’s had success developing the Knox security platform within Samsung already. A charismatic and intelligent speaker, Rhee is a big thinker, the kind of future-planning executive that looks far beyond the current product being sold and focuses on things that can change the direction of a company as a whole.

Samsung’s head of research and development for software and services, Dr. Injong Rhee.
Photo by Dan Seifert / The Verge

As a result, Rhee sees Bixby as something much bigger than just the phone. Bixby is not designed to be a place where you find the answers to any question; it’s meant to be an actual assistant that helps you use the device that's right in front of you, whatever that device may be.

“Since Bixby will be implemented in the cloud, as long as a device has an internet connection and simple circuitry to receive voice inputs, it will be able to connect with Bixby,” explained Rhee in a recent blog post announcing the feature. “The hardware capability that's required to have Bixby is very small.” That means virtually any of the devices produced by Samsung’s vast conglomeration of businesses, from TVs to washing machines to refrigerators and microwaves could eventually get Bixby integration. It’s a platform play on a scale that Samsung has never attempted before, joining various disparate parts of the company’s business under one theme.

Even more telling, Rhee doesn’t see Bixby limited to Samsung’s own products. “Having it on other devices, even competitors, is something we have to think about because that's the future we're heading towards,” he says when asked if Bixby would ever be available for Apple’s devices.

That’s a very different approach from a solipsistic company that’s long acted like its devices were the only ones in the universe. But it follows a recent pattern, echoing the moves Samsung has made to make its wearables and accessories compatible with non-Samsung Android devices and even the iPhone. It appears that Samsung is learning that if it wants to succeed as a platform and services provider, it needs to get its software products in front of as many people as it possibly can, even if they don’t buy a Samsung phone.

Of course, the company isn’t nearly there yet, and Bixby is making its debut in a very limited way on the S8 and S8 Plus. At launch, it works with just a handful of Samsung’s native applications, supports two languages (English and Korean), and relies on a dedicated button on the side of the phone. In the gallery app, it will let you do things like send an image to a contact without having to switch apps or type in any of their information, while inside the camera app it will identify objects and send you to Amazon to buy them.

Rhee says the eventual goal for Bixby on the phone is to be able to perform every task that you can do with touch via voice. According to his tally, that means it will be able to do tens of thousands of actions and understand the millions of ways that someone might ask for help when using their phone.

That’s hugely ambitious, and Samsung will have to contend with managing expectations when people buy an S8 and find that Bixby doesn’t do particularly much at first. It will have to find ways to get people to keep trying Bixby as it gets updated with more capabilities, or when it fails to do what they ask it to. That’s a struggle that all virtual assistants have to overcome — even Apple’s Siri is familiar with this problem, which has had low repeat usage rates for years.

But if Samsung is able to make good on its ambitions with Bixby, it could be the most important thing to come out of the Galaxy S8’s development.

“Customers aren’t excited by new phones anymore,” says Daniel Kang, the head of product planning for the Galaxy S8. Too many phones look the same and don’t do anything different from the multitude of other phones on the market.

That’s a hairy situation for a company like Samsung to be in. Like Apple, it makes most of its profits from the sales of phones. So for the S8, Samsung doubled down on its hardware features that do separate it from the crowd. Put plainly, that means curved screens.

“When we introduced the S6 Edge, we felt [the curved screen] would become Samsung's identity,” says DJ Koh. "But we didn't utilize the edge properly.”

It wasn’t until last year’s Galaxy S7 Edge that the real advantage of having a curved screen on a smartphone became clear: it allows for a bigger screen in a smaller, narrower, easier-to-handle frame. The S7 Edge was the narrowest 5.5-inch smartphone on the market last year and notably smaller than Apple’s 5.5-inch iPhone Plus. “Eighty-nine percent of smartphone users want a narrow bezel with a larger screen,” explains Kang. “People want bigger screens, but they don’t want bigger phones.”

As a result, Samsung has completely left flat screens behind, and both the Galaxy S8 and the larger S8 Plus feature the company’s signature curved screen design. Combined with the new 18.5:9 aspect ratio “Infinity Edge” display, which pushes the screen out to the corners of the phone’s frame farther than ever before, Samsung is able to fit a 5.8-inch display in a footprint barely bigger than the iPhone 7 and its significantly smaller 4.7-inch screen.

The net effect is stunning: the S8 looks like a device from a science fiction movie. The incredibly small borders above and below the screen and curved sides make it feel like you’re just holding a screen and nothing else. It’s perhaps the most logical extension of the smartphone design since the first iPhone was introduced.

But anyone paying attention to Samsung’s hardware designs for the past couple of years could have predicted that the company would go this route. As stunning and polished as the S8 is, it is basically an S7 Edge with the screen pushed out to the corners. That’s not a bad thing, per se, but it’s much more evolutionary than revolutionary. People might not be excited by new phone hardware anymore, but that hasn't stopped Samsung from making the most exciting and beautiful phone designs I've seen in years.

The S8 is loaded with other Samsung specialties, too, including fast wireless charging, high levels of water resistance, and not one, but three different ways to unlock the phone without having to punch in a PIN code. It has the latest and greatest processor from Qualcomm or Samsung itself, and a front-facing camera that now can autofocus. As usual for a flagship Samsung phone, it checks of all the boxes you could ask for on a spec sheet.

Yet it’s hard to shake the feeling that Samsung is being conservative with the S8’s hardware. Its design is a progression; the hardware features aren’t new, but refined. Perhaps that’s the smart approach for a company reeling from the Note 7, which pushed the boundaries in hardware design and features and literally blew up in its face.

Most crucially, Samsung is conservative with the S8’s battery. The batteries in both versions of the new phone are smaller than what was in last year’s S7 Edge, but Samsung says it is using a new chemistry that provides a longer lifespan over time, so your battery life won't degrade as much over a year or two of use.

But even if Samsung is being conservative with the S8’s hardware, the device is unmistakably a Samsung phone and doesn’t look like anything from Apple. After years of making phones that were always seen as followers to what Apple did, Samsung has made a device that stands apart from the iPhone, in both looks and intent.

As I watched brand-new S8 phones get bolted together on Samsung’s new production line in the Gumi factory, it was obvious that the company has a plan for designing great hardware in the wake of the Note 7 fiasco. But as much as I knew that the devices coming off that factory line would have amazing hardware and eye-catching design, I couldn’t escape a nagging thought.

I realized that there’s a thing that many pro users do when they get their hands on a new Samsung smartphone: they immediately disable as many of Samsung’s own apps and services as possible and replace them with Google’s versions. The appreciation for Samsung’s design and hardware rarely extends to its software efforts.

That’s the biggest challenge Samsung faces in its quest to come out from the shadow of Apple. It can’t rely on its hardware manufacturing prowess forever, it needs to develop software and services that make use of that hardware and provide utility for its users. It needs to make things people want to use, not just things that look good.

The S8 is the company’s most ambitious attempt yet to do that. Bixby is limited right now, but embedded in it is a vision that ties Samsung's various hardware manufacturing divisions together with software services. It certainly won’t stop anyone from using Google’s services today, but Samsung hopes that buyers will at least try Bixby instead of Google Assistant the next time they want to use a voice assistant. Samsung even dedicated an entire button on the side of the phone to activate Bixby, in case it wasn’t clear how serious it was about it.

“I don’t want to boast, this is a starting point,” says Koh. “We are on the line of a marathon, the Galaxy S8 will be the first product to enable all of Samsung’s products to be connected. It is the most meaningful device in my career.”

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