Samsung’s mobile business could use a break, but it didn’t get one this weekend in sunny Barcelona.
Reeling from last fall’s Note 7 fire-prone battery debacle, which cost the mobile division billions, the Korean electronics giant postponed introducing its next flagship Galaxy S8 phone and instead focused on tablets, super-fast 5G wireless gear, and a bit of virtual reality.
The Sunday night event’s start was delayed 20 minutes or so by technical glitches, a wait that allowed some analysts and news outlets not present to release details of the new products online before Samsung’s executives had even gotten started on stage.
Once the huge displays in the Palua de Congressos de Catalunya hall were finally working, the messaging was a bit off. The first tag line on Samsung’s short introductory video was “Our phones are extensively tested.” The line had the flavor of Bill Clinton’s infamous gaffe, “it depends on what the meaning of the word ‘is’ is.” Phones may be extensively tested now, but somehow the Note 7 exploding battery was not caught last year.
After the video finished, as David Lowes, chief marketing officer for Samsung in Europe, came out, a Greenpeace protester jumped onto the stage and waved a banner calling for better recycling. Though the connection wasn’t clear, the banner also read: “Samsung It’s simple #GalaxyNote7.”
Scenes from the 2017 Mobile World Congress
Samsung had already made clear it would not be announcing the Galaxy S8 in Barcelona, as the new phone undergoes more scrutiny to ensure no embarrassing flaws come to light. Sunday’s audience was left to hear about Samsung’s efforts in 5G, a faster wireless technology that won’t be available to consumers for at least another two years for phones, and possibly up to four or five years. And instead of showing actual 5G products, Samsung executives were left on stage gamely talking about a few trials of new high-speed Internet and video starting later this year with Verizon (VZ).
Then came an updated Galaxy Tab S3 tablet and a new more powerful line called the Samsung Galaxy Book that runs Windows 10 software, much like Microsoft’s (MSFT) Surface line. Powered by Intel processors more comparable to those used in work-ready laptops (and also including Intel’s wireless modem in versions that can connect to mobile phone networks), the Book was a slick take on the growing two-in-one niche of tablet-keyboard combos.
Still, the tablet market has been contracting at an increasingly rapid rate, making Samsung’s upgrades far from a sure hit. Tablet sales from all vendors fell 16% last year to 175 million devices, according to market tracker International Data Corp. Samsung did even worse, IDC said, with its sales dropping 21%. Cheap tablets from Huawei and Amazon (AMZN) picked up massive market share, which is not the pricing strategy Samsung will likely follow (Samsung did not disclose any prices on Sunday).
The most exciting bit of news on Sunday may have been a new hand-held controller that Samsung unveiled to go with its Gear VR line of virtual reality headsets. Samsung said on Sunday that it’s shipped over 5 million headsets so far, though it didn’t say how many were purchased and how many were given away as part of a promotion with last year’s Galaxy S7 phone.
Overall, though, the Samsung event lacked some of the buzz from last year’s unveiling of the hit Galaxy S7 phone. That took place at the larger and more modern Palau de Congress Barcelona conference hall, where every seat was wired with a Samsung Gear VR headset, and Facebook (FB) CEO Mark Zuckerberg showed up as a surprise guest. The iconic photo taken at the event, showing Zuckerberg walking into the room past a crowd all wearing VR headsets, comes up every time virtual reality is back in the news.
As Sunday’s event ran later than expected, Samsung’s final surprise was spoiled as well. The company ended its presentation with a video teasing the Galaxy S8 and revealing that it would be unveiled on March 29 in New York. But many audience members had already received an email invite to the event from Samsung moments earlier, spoiling some of the surprise.
Samsung is surely working hard to put the Note 7 disaster in the past, but events like Sunday’s aren’t helping. Now Samsung has a month to get its Galaxy S8 presentation in top form, hopefully to make a better impression than it did in Barcelona.