Tag Archives: Wearable tech

Fancy smartphone features matter less than battery life, say consumers

Curved screens, eyeball tracking and fancy specs are all less important to smartphone owners than basic functions like battery life and usability, research has found

Smartphone manufacturers may be turning to ever outlandish new features in an effort to distance themselves from the competition, but consumers still value battery life and usability over flashy gimmicks, according to new research.

Longer battery longevity, simplicity of use and decent mobile reception are primary concerns for mobile users, over curved or flexible displays, customised exteriors and eyeball tracking, according to data from uSwitch.

Of 5,306 smartphone owners, 28 per cent said usability was their most-prized feature, followed by 21 per cent prioritising reception and battery life.

Other practical aspects like anti-shatter screens and waterproofing were deemed as adding value to a handset by 70 per cent and 57 per cent of owners respectively, while just under half (49 per cent) said a zoom camera lens was a useful addition.

Just 11 per cent were excited by 3D graphics as seen on Amazon’s Fire Phone, while 8 per cent were impressed by customised exteriors like theLG G4’s leather back, and 4 per cent valued curved displays as showcased by the Samsung Galaxy S6 Edge and newly-revealed Edge+.

The curved edge of the Samsung Galaxy S6 Edge +The curved edge of the Samsung Galaxy S6 Edge +

Flexible smartphones, like the LG G Flex and G Flex 2, were considered beneficial by only 8 per cent of respondents.

“British smartphone users are wise to gimmickry. While mobile makers need phones that stand out from the throng, they sometimes forget that a phone is primarily a phone, and it still needs to do all the basics extremely well – such as make calls and not run out of battery,” said mobiles expert Ernest Doku.

“Britons might be cynical when it comes to smartphone specs, and we can sniff a gimmick from a mile away, but we also crave real innovation. And when manufacturers get it right, as they have with fingerprint technology and zoom camera lenses, it vastly improves the smartphone experience.”

Advertisements
Tagged , , , , , ,

Apple Pay scores with Apple Watch owners, survey says

More than half of the Apple Watch owners polled said they find Apple Pay “magical,” while another 42 percent see it as “convenient,” according to data from research firm Wristly.

Apple Pay is proving popular with many Apple Watch owners.

A hefty 80 percent of 1,000 Apple Watch owners surveyed in the US and UK by research firm Wristly have already used Apple Pay at least once. Among the people who haven’t used it, 5 percent said they don’t “perceive a benefit,” another 5 percent said they have security concerns, and around 15 percent said they their payment needs are already being met. But 29 percent of the non-users said one of the main reasons they don’t use Apple Pay is because their credit card provider doesn’t support it.

Apple Pay launched in the US in October as Apple’s first foray into contactless mobile payments. Using an iPhone 6, iPhone 6 Plus or Apple Watch, people can pay for items on the go at supported retailers via NFC (near-field communication) technology. Apple Pay usage is notably high among the Apple Watch owners polled for several reasons. But a major one is likely convenience.

To use Apple Pay with an iPhone, you have to pull the phone out of your pocket or purse and then make the transaction via the Touch ID fingerprint sensor. With an Apple Watch, your payment method is already there on your wrist. All you need do is double-tap the watch’s side button, select the credit or debit card you want to use and hold the face of the watch to the payment terminal. The watch will vibrate, and a check mark appears on the screen to confirm the payment. You don’t need a password or Touch ID as you do on an iPhone. The watch will ask for a password if you take it off your wrist. But as long as you keep it on, a simple double-tap does the work.

That convenience may be the reason why half of the Apple Watch owners polled who use Apple Pay called the service “magical,” while another 42 percent dubbed it “convenient.” Only 4 percent found it “not that useful,” while another 3 percent said they have other concerns about using Apple Pay. Further, 79 percent of the Apple Pay users said they prefer to use it on their watch versus their iPhone.

Drilling down further, 62 percent of those polled who use Apple Pay said they prefer to buy from retailers due at least in part to the business’s decision to support Apple Pay. And 86 percent of those people said they look for the Apple Pay logo when they’re at the checkout counter. If Apple’s payment option is available, 81 percent of Apple Pay users said they will use it.

Though most of the Apple Watch owners polled may enjoy Apple Pay, Apple still faces a challenge expanding the service’s reach, both in the US and abroad. In the US, Apple has lined up a healthy list of banks and credit card companies to support Apple Pay. But it’s still facing a long haul getting more retailers to jump on board. Retailers have to set up the necessary NFC terminals in order to accept Apple Pay, a process that takes time and money. In the meantime, rival services such as Android Payand Samsung Pay are now ramping up. Samsung Pay doesn’t require NFC and can work with any magnetic strip card reader, so it holds at least that advantage over Apple Pay.

Apple Pay recently hit the UK with support from nine banks so far and another five coming soon. But Apple Pay has been hitting obstacles in such regions as China, Canada and Australia where banks are balking at the high cut of transaction fees that Apple wants to grab from them.

Tagged , , , , , , , , , ,

To inspire software and hardware developers, Intel gets bold and very weird

At its annual developer conference, the chipmaker lays out the future and asks the tech community to help make it reality.

It was about 10 seconds into the robotic spider dance that you had to remind yourself you were watching a presentation by the world’s largest chipmaker, Intel.

CEO Brian Krzanich had just finished his hour and a half keynote address Tuesday at the annual Intel Developer Forum here by discussing not the company’s bread and butter — its processing chips that power the brains of modern-day computers — but wacky and outlandish proof-of-concepts. The series of technical demonstrations included a vending machine that could remember your face and keep track of the food you like, a full-length mirror that could change the color of your clothing in real time, and a smartphone in collaboration with Google that can see and 3D map of a room.

Oh, and spiders. There were a lot of them, all capable of being controlled in orchestral fashion with a single hand’s gesture. Krzanich realized the implication of impending arachnid Armageddon, and introduced the eight-legged companions by showing a video clip by comedian Jimmy Fallon, poking fun at the obvious terror.

In all, the demonstrations were meant to send a message: Intel has a vision for the future, and it wants to be the company that provides the tools for getting us there. That’s a stark contrast to what Intel used to talk about at these events: The latest chips, its newest production facilities and the newest computers being powered by it all.

The reason is that processors just aren’t as exciting as they used to be.

The Santa Clara, California, chipmaker grew to a workforce of more than 105,000 people with nearly $56 billion in sales last year largely on the worldwide popularity of the PC. But that was in the old days. Now, the PC is trying to stave off flat or falling sales that have dogged companies in the past two years. The tech industry, meanwhile, has instead focused on mobile phones and the many so-called “smart” devices, such as sensors and other hardware that Apple’s iPhone and Google’s Android have ushered in.

Tagged , , , , , , , , , ,

Forget the Apple Watch — Dole makes a wearable banana

To celebrate eight years as a Tokyo Marathon sponsor, Dole’s Japan division has outfitted a banana with sensors and LEDs to create the world’s first edible wearable.

Before the Apple Watch, there was the Dole banana.

The world’s largest producer of fruits and vegetables, Dole has sponsored the Tokyo Marathon since 2008 and supplied bananas to potassium-deficient runners throughout the race. The company’s Japanese division has even printed runners’ stats on the banana peel in previous races.

So it’s only natural that Dole’s ambitions have moved onto wearable tech, an industry flush with fitness bands, watches, smart shirts and eyewear, but terribly lacking in vitamin B6. Enter the Dole wearable banana wrist … thing.

The “gadget” is essentially wired parts stuck to the inside of an opened banana peel, which is then stitched back together. Once strapped to runners’ wrists, the bananas will show racers’ times, tweets, heart rate — and when to eat the next banana.

“The power source is a small battery connected to the wearable banana. Inside the battery there are ultracompact LEDs and other electronic components,” said Dole Japan spokesperson Itaru Kunieda. Adding a hint of intrigue, Kunieda added, “These are the only details about the specs that we can tell you at the moment.”

Wearable technology is shaping up to be the next big frontier in consumer electronics marketing. The worldwide market for wearable devices, including fitness bands and smartwatches, is expected to surge to $52.3 billion by 2019, up from about $4.5 billion last year, according to market tracker Juniper Research. The highly anticipated Apple Watch, due to ship in April, along with products from luxury watchmakers, fashion designers and tech companies could fuel that demand.

Of course, no company will be able to replicate the magic of a wearable banana. Two runners out of the 30,000 marathon participants on Sunday will be handed Dole’s device in the morning. They will then be asked to run 26.2 miles with a banana on their wrist, presumably without eating it.

Tagged , , , ,

Wearable tech at CES 2014: expect the unexpected

The weird, wild world of wearables is bound for a lot of chaos in Las Vegas. What will it all add up to? That’s anyone’s guess.

Wearable tech often feels like either a wide-open horse race or the Star Wars cantina of consumer electronics, and at January’s CES in Las Vegas things should get a whole lot crazier. After a year in 2013 where tons of gadgets emerged but none dominated, expect a lot more players into a multifaceted landscape that’s still not all that well-defined.

What is wearable tech, for instance? We give it that name because these gadgets are generally small and body-worn: watches, wristbands, clip-on devices, or glasses. They have sensors and possibly screens. They connect with other devices, or phones, or Wi-Fi, or Bluetooth, or receive information from other smart gadgets. They might be health-related, or they might not.

This is what I expect based on what we’ve seen in 2013.

 

Fitness Tech Evolved 
FitbitNikeWithings, and Jawbone — to name just four — have been actively updating their software and wearable bands recently, adding Bluetooth 4.0 for longer battery life and continuous connectivity. There may be newer announcements from these companies, but I’d expect new players to enter the fold, too.

Expect fitness trackers everywhere at CES 2014: they’re cheap and easy to make, and might suddenly turn into the disposable MP3 player of this year. They may not all be good, but that’s never stopped a vendor at CES.

Fitness ecosystems may get smarter, more socially connected. Fitbit, Jawbone and Nike have done a good job at being social, but expect others to try to improve on the equation.

More connected devices and added sensor technology could expand the horizons of health tech. Wearable heart-rate monitors like the Mio-powered Adidas miCoach Smart Run and Basis Band are already out there, but other gadgets are bound to introduce sensors that go beyond mere pedometer-based tracking.

Avegant Virtual Retinal Display

 

Google Glass-alikes: the second wave 
Now that Google Glass has paved the way, smart glasses, visors and augmented-reality goggles should be in force throughout CES. Some technologies we’ve already seen, like Avegant’s Virtual Retinal Display goggles and the Vuzix M100 smart glasses, may emerge with new software, apps, or hardware surprises. The Oculus Rift, which is more of a VR headset than a true wearable mobile accessory, will be back, backed with new funding and promises of Android support.

 

Smart Watches 2.0 
The PebbleSamsung Galaxy GearQualcomm Toq and second Sony smartwatch arrived in 2013 to legitimize smart watches, but everything still feels half-baked. What comes next? Maybe 2014 is the magic year when Apple, Google and Microsoft define the territory further, and Samsung and Sony refine their watches one more time. But, Apple, Google and Microsoft won’t be at CES. Instead, expect a lot of wild-card watch makers promising better software, displays, or features. Expect start-ups, crowd-funded prototypes, and some entries from less expected big tech companies. Hopefully, someone will do a better job of building an all-around smarter watch that’s actually useful. Crazy all-in-one do-every Android watches like the Omate TrueSmart might be lurking around the show floor.

 

The Internet of Things Invades Wearables 
Call it “smart home,” or connected devices: the Internet of Things has lingered as a catchphrase for a while, promising a universe of little devices and appliances that communicate with each other and form a seamless network. Not many wearable gadgets have promised being able to connect to your home thermostat or your lighting system, but that type of use case could be pushed a lot harder at CES. A smartwatch could be a dashboard for information about everything in your home, not just notifications on your watch. The Jawbone Up app already taps into IFTTT to do some potential interconnected things. Will more wearables take this route?

The Wild Cards: expect odd surprises 
Wearable tech is an odd-duck world striving to be surprising. Fringe tech is bound to emerge that threatens to defy categories. Remember last year’s Hapifork smart fork? I expect at least a few products that make you scratch your head and wonder if someone’s playing a prank. Smart hat? Smart shoe? Smart cufflinks? I’m willing to place my bet on at least one of those coming true just as an opportunity to snag social traffic.

Tagged , , , , ,

Behind Samsung’s push to rule the world

Samsung wants to be all things to all people. CNET’s Shara Tibken went to South Korea to discover how it does just that.

Be sure to catch the other stories in this package: on the many pieces of Samsung Group’s empire, on road-testing Samsung’s S Translate app, on TVs and appliances in a Q&A with co-CEO Boo-keun Yoon, and on how Samsung torture-tests its products.


SEOUL, South Korea — “It sounded like a toilet.”

 

Samsung Electronics sound designer Myoung-woo Nam is describing the not-quite-right noise his team created for the Galaxy S3, at least initially. Here, in a dimly lit room on the eighth floor of a Samsung skyscraper, in the heart of Seoul’s trendy Gangnam district — yes, that Gangnam — a team of audio designers create sounds to capture what they describe as the overall theme of the device, whether it’s for a Galaxy phone or the just released Samsung Galaxy Gear.

Each has its own challenge. Some sounds require a 40-piece orchestra; others come about using household items such as straws and drinking glasses, which ultimately solved the toilet problem. But more on that in a moment.

For its follow-up phone, the Galaxy S4, the team wanted to create “the sound of light.” It used synthesizers, and then, as it always does, tailored tones for different parts of the world. After all, what’s pleasing in one country might offend in another — as Samsung discovered when Japanese women thought a whistle it considered using for messaging on the Galaxy S4sounded like a catcall.

The takeaway? Details matter. A lot. As Sujin Park, a senior member of Samsung’s design strategy team, put it to me, “Localizing is our strategy.”

 

It’s a strategy that, over the past few years, has helped Samsung soar to the top of the smartphone world. Unlike its fierce Cupertino, Calif., rival, Samsung wants to be everything for everyone. A bigger screen? You can get it from Samsung. A stylus? Sure. Want a flip phone? No problem.

This is the Samsung Way: Do it all, and do it fast. Really fast, even if you’re following the market Apple created and sometimes, as a jury determined, stealing its ideas. In the year it takes Apple to release a new iPhone, Samsung typically unveils three or four “flagship” products, adding up to several dozens in all. That speed, coupled with its fierce commitment to quality and marketing heft, has lifted this sprawling South Korean empire from niche player status in just half a decade.

Now, Samsung has added something else to its playbook: Do it first. The Galaxy Gear, its big push into wearable tech, came out while the pundits were still guessing about what Apple might do. And in early October, Samsung introduced the Galaxy Round, a smartphone with a curved display bent at the vertical axis. The Gear is off to a slow start, to put it kindly, and who knows if people will care about the Round’s quasi-tubular look. But to the top brass at Samsung, it almost doesn’t matter.

 

“The idea is to be the fastest company,” said Young-hee Lee, who heads marketing for Samsung’s mobile business and, since joining from L’Oreal in 2007, has helped make the brand recognizable the world over. “React is not the proper word anymore. We should lead.”

 

Seeking world domination
One way Samsung is trying to do that is through sheer heft. The company employs an army of 62,000 engineers, just short of the entire population of Palo Alto, Calif., and it markets their efforts like few others.

This year, Samsung — which generated $210 billion in revenue over the past four quarters, roughly $40 billion more than Apple — is on track to spend more than half a billion dollars on advertising in the US alone. That’s about what Apple spends, but more than Nokia, HTC, and BlackBerry — which made its big comeback push earlier this year — combined, according to market research firm Kantar Group.

 

“The idea is to be the fastest company. React is not the proper word anymore. We should lead.” 
–Young-hee Lee, Samsung executive vice president and head of marketing for mobile

In part, Samsung is trying to combat the free attention Apple gets from its cult-like following — a phenomenon that drives people inside Samsung nuts. For the latest iPhone launch, spies from Samsung’s parent company visited a New York Apple store to try to understand just why so many people line up for hours, even days, in advance.

 

And on the day Apple unveiled the iPhone 5, just more than a year ago, a team of Samsung execs watched the event from a Wolfgang Puck restaurant in Los Angeles, turning it into a sort of war room. By the time Apple CEO Tim Cook wrapped up his presentation, according to Fortune magazine, the Samsung gang had drafted the beginnings of an ad campaign against Apple. When the iPhone 5 hit the market a week later, Samsung launched a TV spot mocking Apple fanboys.

Marketing only gets you so far, of course. You need great products, fierce R&D, and a manufacturing process that’s fast and efficient — all of which Samsung has developed through an approach that’s uniquely Samsung: It does almost everything — from building the parts to assembling the devices — in house. That’s made this sprawling enterprise surprisingly nimble.

“It all comes down to execution,” says Mark Newman, an analyst with Sanford Bernstein who worked in business strategy at Samsung between 2004 and 2010. “Nobody else has been able to do this.”

In fact, the fear of stumbling on itself, under its own weight, and not the battle with Apple, is what some top execs say worries them the most.

 

“For us, the biggest hurdle … would be internal,” Boo-Keun Yoon, the head of consumer electronics and co-CEO, told me through an interpreter, sitting in his multi-room suite at Samsung’s headquarters, known as Digital City. “That would be complacency, or being too proud.”

Fish to phablets
Digital City is where it all begins. This is Samsung’s campus of modern skyscrapers, parks, and basketball courts that, all told, make up a business park equivalent in size to 250 soccer fields. It’s Samsung Electronics’ company town, and it sits about an hour south of Seoul in a city called Suwon. The whole place feels like a large university, except it’s not. The buildings all have signs, in English, that remind people to “Create,” “Challenge,” and “Innovate.” People zip around on company owned bicycles. Artwork, including a giant, hot pink teddy bear, adorn parks and the sides of buildings in hopes they’ll inspire the engineers on campus.

If it helps, why not? The 30,000 people who make their careers at Digital City are among Samsung’s smartest — those who come up with the ideas, experiment with out-there technology, develop products, fine-tune their work, and make sense of data and mountains of consumer research.

 

“For us, the biggest hurdle … would be internal. That would be complacency, or being too proud.” 
–Boo-Keun Yoon, Samsung co-CEO and head of consumer electronics

Digital City is also home to the company museum, celebrating Samsung’s origins as a trading company that, beginning in 1938, sold dried Korean fish, vegetables, and fruit to China. It’s not exactly the Silicon Valley two-guys-in-a garage storyline. In fact, Samsung didn’t start selling electronics until 31 years later, in 1969. And it wasn’t until the mid-1990s that the founder’s son, Kun-hee Lee, then at the helm of the company, committed to making high-end products and shed Samsung’s reputation for cheap goods. In 1993, during an executive retreat in Frankfurt, he told employees that they needed to “change everything but your wife and kids.”

 

That proclamation wasn’t enough, however. Early in 1995, Kun-hee Lee discovered that phones he gave as gifts didn’t work. Enraged, he traveled to Gumi, home to Samsung’s main assembly plant about three hours south of Seoul by car, and dumped 150,000 phones onto a field. Then,the story goes, he ordered employees to surround the pile, and instructed some of them to light the phones on fire and plow over the mess with a bulldozer.

Point made. Since then, quality has been part of Samsung’s mantra. Still, its path to mobile success has been anything but smooth. While Samsung had been selling basic cellphones for years in the high-end market, the push to broaden its product line to address everyone, everywhere, began in 2007. Apple unveiled the iPhone that same year.

Cranking out more varieties at a faster pace was the job of the workers in Gumi, a place many of the 10,000 employees there also call home, and where memory of the handset bonfire still looms. Gumi wasn’t what I had expected: The vibe is more Facebook than Foxconn. Workers, mostly in their 20s, live in dorms that resemble college housing — at least from the outside. To live in those buildings adjacent to campus, they pay less per year than the cost of an unsubsidized Galaxy S4. There also are company-funded cafeterias, coffee shops, karaoke rooms, movie theaters, and fields for foot volleyball, a soccer and volleyball combo.

 

The biggest change occurred on the assembly line. Before 2007, workers put together gadgets in standard, assembly line fashion — each person responsible for one component, or task. To ramp up production, however, the company switched to a cellular system, in which each worker puts together an entire phone. It sounds more time-consuming, but it isn’t. The approach has made Samsung faster at making multiple products, and it has made it easier to adjust production based on demand.

 

Yet that didn’t mean the designs were great. Far from it. Looking back, Samsung’s early Android phones were embarrassing — bulky and unsightly physical buttons running on Android’s half -baked software that looked amateurish beside the iPhone. Remember theBehold II and the Moment? Probably not, and Samsung would like to keep it that way.

“Our first Android smartphone for Orange, our operator partner, wasn’t really welcomed, and the market feedback wasn’t good,” said Young-hee Lee, who was part of the executive team that helped turn things around for Samsung. “But we didn’t stop there.”

Hardly. The turnaround came on several fronts, as the team, led by mobile chief and now co-CEO JK Shin, refocused on a single brand, the Galaxy S. They emphasized the “three S’s: screen, speed, and software,” and out of that strategy grew a powerful franchise — the Galaxy S line of phones — that now, of course, is the only brand rivaling Apple’s iPhone when it comes to buzz and anticipation.

It’s Shin and his team who deserve much of the credit for Samsung’s position in mobile today. Take how he and top US executives messed with the carrier-centric phone model for the Galaxy S3. Rather than rely on the wireless providers to promote Samsung products in return for exclusive agreements, Samsung persuaded all major carriers to sell the S3 even though they knew that rivals would get the phone as well. Even more daring, Samsung didn’t show the carriers the device in advance.

“They were all very resistant,” said one person involved in the process, who spoke on the condition of anonymity so as not to upset Samsung or the carriers. “It was a complete flip from what Samsung had historically done.”

 

The fear came from Apple. The nationwide US carriers were reluctant to relinquish control to Samsung after they had given Steve Jobs free rein to oversee how Apple built and sold the iPhone. But Samsung persisted, showing the carriers its marketing plans, including its TV commercials. This helped the carriers feel like they were a part of the S3 rollout even though they had never seen the device.

 

It was shrewd, for sure. Ultimately, it helped Samsung create a focused marketing campaign around a single product — yes, the way Apple does — and it’s a model now emulated by HTCand LG.

Samsung’s big breakout came with last year’s Galaxy S3, and that set the stage for the far-splashier unveiling of the S4 last March. Samsung — doubtless thinking of ways to combat Apple attention — put on a Broadway-like event (offensive to some ) at New York’s Radio City Music Hall. While the show went on for the world, complete with gaudy skits, things backstage were tense.

And Samsung had rushed to introduce the Galaxy S4 earlier than its predecessor, which meant engineers were tweaking features right up to launch. Some, such as the much-ballyhooed eye scrolling, didn’t work so well. But that didn’t matter — Samsung was going to get the phone out on time.

‘Perpetual crisis’
People inside Samsung describe the atmosphere as a state of “perpetual crisis,” fostered by a persistent and underlying fear that the company might lose everything at any moment. There are no breaks to celebrate wins; there’s only what’s next. Perhaps it’s baked into the culture. Or maybe it comes from sharing a border with North Korea, where an attack at any moment seems possible. Whatever the reason, Samsung, the workplace, runs with military-like order. It’s not uncommon to see employees bow to their superiors.

 

Even with this emphasis on speed, details — remember the toilet? — can smash the company’s plans at any moment. When Samsung launched the Galaxy S3 in “pebble blue,” for instance, it used a manufacturing technique for the phone’s back panel that made production faster, easier, and more reliable. But it also made the backplate color and finish appear different from the rest of the phone, making it look cheap.

 

The company went into mass production, and boxed up thousands of phones — and then Samsung’s top execs saw one of the blue Galaxy S3 devices. They demanded that the workers fix the back panels to improve the quality, even though that meant spending more money and delaying the release. Samsung dumped thousands of back panels, even taking phones out of the boxes as they were about to be shipped on planes.

“I had one of the originals in my office because they sent samples, and they came and got it,” said one person involved with the device’s development. “They said, ‘we will not allow these to ever be exposed to the public.'”

 

“It’s really easy for big, successful companies to sit back and say, we’re huge, it’s just software, we can write it. From our standpoint, Samsung has an enlightened point of view.” 
–Marc Andreessen

Speed has taken its toll in other instances as well. Just look at the Galaxy Gear. As I wrote about the Gear in October, Samsung sped through the development process to get the smartwatch out in roughly a year, compared with the typical 18-month development time for a typical smartphone. Sure, it came to market early, but to what end?

 

After all, there were basic shortcomings. When the Gear launched, it wasn’t compatible with other devices — even those made by Samsung — leaving the company open to criticism that it introduced the product too early. According to one insider, the company was so busy getting ready for the Note 3 launch in October that, the person said, “they just didn’t have the bandwidth to get the other products done at the same time.”

For its part, Samsung execs say they’re unfazed by criticism. They insist they’re committed to the smartwatch business, and, according to people familiar with the company’s plans, are already working on an sleeker version with a higher-quality screen that’s slated for a March release.

 

Samsung also plans to make “very significant changes” to its next flagship Galaxy S smartphone, says Samsung design head Dong-hoon Chang. And next on Samsung’s checklist: shoring up the software and user experience, and rallying developers to its cause.

 

Samsung’s missing link
The New York office of startup Boxee is unlike any you’ll find at Samsung: Old desks, creaky wooden floors, and peeling white walls. Yet this was an important stop for Samsung’s leaders one day last fall. A dozen execs, including co-CEO Yoon and HS Kim, the head of Samsung’s TV business, met up with Boxee CEO Avner Ronen and his small team, who had developed a cloud-based digital video recorder for TV. Ronen shared his vision for how television and video will evolve, as did the Samsung team. Less than 10 months later, Samsung bought Boxee.

A game-changing purchase for Samsung? Probably not. But it underscores a shortcoming Samsung desperately wants to fix — its need for partners developing cutting-edge tech and its need for its own software.

Samsung, in short, really wants to do it all — and that includes cutting ties with Google, which remains a partner but has also become a big competitor. The end game: To create its own Apple-like ecosystem.

Samsung’s early software efforts have been mixed. Its TouchWiz user interface, which is the software layered on top of Android, is reviled by many Android purists who want a less cluttered design. When the Galaxy S4 launched, some critics slammed the amount of “bloatware,” or pre-installed and unremovable programs such as S Translate and S Voice.

And the biggest effort of all is one the world has yet to see: Samsung’s mobile OS, called Tizen,which is Samsung’s ultimate play to wean itself from Android. Samsung had promised its first phone running the OS this year, but now that device won’t arrive until early 2014, at best.

The Tizen effort comes as Samsung has edged its way into the developer world in the US, where many of the hot apps have come from. The company just wrapped up its first-ever developer conference in San Francisco, an event attended by 1,300 developers and hosted by Samsung’s Media Solutions Center software and services unit. And about a year ago, it created what it calls the Open Innovation Center, a group focused on working with software and services startups. As part of that effort, it’s opened accelerators in Palo Alto and New York.

 

“Innovation has tended to happen when you have a small group of people with no legacy anything, just trying to solve big problems,” said David Eun, Samsung executive vice president and OIC leader.

 

Samsung execs are also making frequent stops at some of the most important players in Silicon Valley. A team a couple dozen strong makes several trips a year to visit VC firm Andreessen Horowitz on Sand Hill Road, for instance. There, the execs talk about what’s happening in the market, and Andreessen Horowitz-backed companies pitch their businesses to Samsung for potential partnerships or acquisitions.

“It’s really easy for big, successful companies to sit back and say, we’re huge, it’s just software, we can write it,” said co-founder Marc Andreessen. “From our standpoint, Samsung has an enlightened point of view.”

Samsung also is trying on its home turf. More than half of those 62,000 engineers work on software. Samsung is hiring so aggressively that crosstown rival LG is having trouble competing for talent.

 

“Software is something that we’re working on continuously,” said Yoon, the co-CEO. “These days, hardware is important, but that is not enough.”

That’s because Samsung’s future will rest upon how well its products work together, which is all about the software. There will undoubtedly be more Galaxy S smartphones and Note tablets, but also more wearable products, not to mention Samsung refrigerators and washers.

Back in Korea, I check out Samsung D’Light, the company’s product showroom housed in its Seoul office building. The three-floor venue, which displays everything from semiconductors to smart TVs and computers, has become a popular stop for tour groups. Samsung’s “Software Zone” is tucked away in a corner on the top floor, far away from the bustle below.

That in itself shows the problem, that software has long been a second-class citizen of sorts. It needs to be integral, with developers paying attention to details as important as the sound every phone makes. Which brings us back to the Galaxy S3, that pesky toilet sound, and the determination of a room of sound designers. Their aim: to create the natural sound of a stream.

It seemed simple enough. They tried blowing water through a straw, and recording that, but it just didn’t work. They experimented with different sized cups and different amounts of water. They tried milk, juices, anything. “We thought and tried about a hundred times,” said Myoung-woo Nam, well aware of the oddness of his job.

Then someone blew through a straw into a cup of orange juice. Voila. The Galaxy S3 stream sound was born. If only all of Samsung’s challenges were so easy to fix.

 

Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,