Interview: How Samsung is going to try to sell you a smart watch

Focusing on improving the “pain points”

Samsung Galaxy S5

Samsung released its latest round of mobile devices on April 11, including the Galaxy S5, seen here. (Samsung)

Paul Brannen, Samsung Electronics Canada president

Paul Brannen

Last week Samsung released its latest round of mobile devices, including the Galaxy S5 smartphone and a new round of Gear smart watches. Apple long ago made it a virtue that it tells consumers what they want, instead of asking them. But Samsung contends its newest devices contain improvements that directly respond to customer feedback. The Galaxy 5 offers an “ultra power saving mode,” which allows it to run on 10% battery power for 24 hours by shutting down non-essential functions and can be submerged in water for 30 minutes for protection against accidental spills (or toilet plunges). I spoke with Paul Brannen, Samsung Canada’s senior vice president for mobile and enterprise, about the new products, the mobile market and why anyone would ever wear a smart watch.

The reaction to the new Galaxy has been largely positive, but reviewers noted there’s nothing revolutionary about it. Is that just where we’re at with the market? Has the technology matured to the point where any improvement is incremental?

I would use this example. Years ago, when you bought your first PC or first notebook, you could probably tell me the size of the processor, how much memory you had, how big the hard drive was, how much it weighed. When a new technology comes out, we’re consumed with the technology side of it. Today, if you asked me about my PC, I couldn’t even tell you how much memory it had inside, or what the processor was. As users of technology, we now take it for granted that a PC is going to be where we need it to be. I would hazard to guess phones are almost at that place. So we can get thinner, we can potentially get faster, we can change screen size. But is there going to be massive technological change inside the mobile business? My theory is not. The trend we’re going to see is addressing the pain points for consumers. That’s where we spent a lot of time on this device.

So you’re focusing on the things that bug people?

Yeah. If you think about it, the number-one thing that people use their device for, other than making calls and sending messages, it’s taking pictures. So Samsung was always known for building a lot of bells and whistles into our phones’ cameras, like eye detection to make sure everyone’s eyes are open and looking at the camera. Great—but if it took 10 to 15 seconds to take picture, then your kids get impatient or your friends think you’re a goof. What we did is focus on making it faster. So the new device has autofocus that works in 0.3 seconds. That’s not revolutionary, right? But it’s an evolution because it will make it easier for users to do what they want to do.

The device also has a heart rate monitor in it. Between that, a camera and the phone itself, it’s becoming a little like a Swiss Army Knife. Do you foresee a day when Samsung produces specialized phones—say, one for fitness buffs? Or is it about packing more and more gizmos into a single phone?

Our theory is that you might get two smart watches—we have the Gear Fit for exercise and then the Gear for everyday, which has more robust capabilities—and one phone. Which means, at some point in time, we see the sale of the wearable technology outstripping the sale of the phones.

The place where I get hung up, as someone who is not really an early adopter, is I can see how having a watch that monitors my heart rate would be handy—but it’s a real challenge to convince me that I need to wear a computer on my wrist all the time. How do you get the wider market, beyond tech geeks, to get interested in wearable tech?

It becomes a convenience thing. For me personally, it allows me to get all my notifications and all my emails. So if I’m sitting here talking to you, I don’t need to be looking at my phone. I get all my notifications on my Gear and all my e-mail and quickly dismiss them. And if there’s something really important, I can say “excuse me,” hit the message on my Gear and it will pop up on my phone. For me, it’s about being less intrusive. My wife tells me this all the time. We’ll be at dinner and she’ll say: “You’re not paying attention. Put down your device.” So for me, it lets me stay connected but be less intrusive.

But a fair number of people will see the Gear as a replacement for a watch. And the thing is, I need to charge a Gear every day. I only change my watch battery once a year. Isn’t that a problem for getting people to switch?

Battery life is definitely a pain point for consumers. The battery on the original Gear got you through a day. The battery on the Fit will easily get you through 48 hours. So we made some significant improvements, because that was some of the feedback we got from consumers.

Your competitors in the smartphone market have really defined their brands—Apple has its cool factor and BlackBerry has its attachments to the business community. You entered the market defining yourself as an alternative to them. As you build your market, what do you think will define Samsung’s identity with consumers?

For us, we want to be a cool brand too. As a company, we’ve made some significant investments in the past five years. We want to be premium—it started with our TVs and it started with our phones. We’re very different from our competitors in the Android market. They went cheap and cheerful, trying to compete on price. We decided we wanted to compete on technology. So we built a premium phone and we started by focusing on the screen. And we’ve managed to build on that. For me, the sign that we’ve become an aspirational brand is I used to go into the local Starbucks and people would say “That’s a cool phone, what is it?” Now they say “Is that the Note 3 or that the GS5?” So we’ve built that brand.