Just hours after Samsung announced its latest suite of products, T.M. Roh, the man in charge of Samsung’s mobile division, is reflecting on the launch. The run-up to the company’s big shindig in Seoul, where Samsung launched no fewer than seven products (two foldable phones, two smartwatches and three tablets) has had an effect on the man in charge of all Samsung’s mobile devices.
“As we were getting ready for the event in Seoul, I found myself more nervous and excited than ever before,” Mr Roh, who serves as Samsung’s president and head of Mobile eXperience Business. “I hoped that everyone coming all the way to Seoul would be able to experience the energy in the city and the passion and innovation by Samsung.”
No wonder: it was a big day, with drop-in appearances by K-Pop stars Stray Kids, followed by an in-person endorsement by Suga, lead rapper from BTS. Enough to turn anyone’s head.
Meanwhile, with its products, Samsung was planting a flag to say that its investment in foldable devices is only going to grow. “The Galaxy Z Fold5 and Flip5 offer an innovative experience, and diverse features which are based on the innovative know-how that we have had across five generations of foldables.”
Folding phones are important to Samsung. Roh says that this year the company is targeting 1.8 million sales of foldable devices in Europe, while global cumulative sales could reach 30 million, showing that though foldables may still be a niche, it’s one that’s growing strongly.
And then, Roh drops a quiet bombshell: “Foldables will expand to other categories like the tablet and PC and continue to develop after.”
I ask him to talk more about an Android folding tablet – something that has not been mentioned before by Samsung and doesn’t exist from any other brand. “The tablet is a very good product category, one where we can apply the foldable format. Why are Samsung Mobile and I so convinced about the foldable? The reason is very simple. Because it has been part of human history and human nature for so long to read books, or use notebooks,” he says.
“People open up a book to read and open up a notebook to write something. When they’re not being used, or when on the move and they can be folded shut, which makes them more compact and portable, as well as protecting important information inside. It’s just a natural part of human behaviour.
“What has been applied to the smartphone will then spread to the tablet and laptops as well. To that end we at Samsung are investing a lot of resources. And once that foundational technology is developed and we believe that the product is ready to provide meaningful innovation to consumers, then, of course, we want to introduce them.”
Roh didn’t give any timing on when these new products would be ready, but a foldable tablet, not to mention a folding laptop, are certainly intriguing. And does this mean that because of folding phones, tablets and laptops that the regular smartphone’s days are numbered? Is there something that could make it obsolete?
Roh seems doubtful. “One of the biggest characteristics of the smartphone is that you can have it anywhere, any time, and can access the information that you want instantly. People need more and more information and they want to satisfy their growing needs. And I believe that there is going to be even more emphasis on the characteristics of the smartphone. Meaning that even if there are new companion devices and new form factors or other specific devices that are to be invented, but these other devices will need to be connected seamlessly and interact together, so the smartphone will continue to play a role.”
It’s about recognising each device category clearly, it seems. “What is important is to get a really clear understanding about the key elements and characteristics of each device and each category. Then we can keep developing.” For a tablet, then, the characteristics include a screen large enough to be easily used, in a thin form factor. Roh mentions a product he’s just launched, the Samsung Galaxy S9 Tab Ultra which has a 14.6-inch display. “It still needs to be thin and light so that it’s highly portable. But it has to be strong so that it can be used without worry. We have set a new standard for a premium tablet.”
I ask about how being number one can be a burden as well as a triumph. Samsung is the market leader in several categories, such as smartphones and TVs. How do you maintain your motivation when you’re already at the top, to keep improving and innovating?
Roh says, “Where we find the motivation to keep working hard, it’s simple: consumers. Consumers’ needs and demands. And the need to keep developing key technologies. So, we created the foldable, but before that we created the category of the large-screen phone, with the Galaxy Note, and when this arrived there was criticism that the screen was too big.
“Today almost 100 per cent of smartphones have screens larger than 5 or 6 inches and larger screens have improved the capabilities of the smartphone by several notches. If we hadn’t introduced them, and 3.5-inch screens had remained the norm, the improvements of experiences for users would have been much delayed. Likewise with smartphone photgoraphy – we started work on this a long time ago but there are further developments and improvements to come.”
Finally, what about that buzzword du jour: AI? Roh says, “In general, AI is playing a very important role in the mobile industry and Galaxy devices specifically. It has been instrumental. In products like the Galaxy S23 and last year’s S22 series, and the A series of phones, it is used for improving camera performance, gaming performance, for personalisation and optimising usability. It is crucial in improving features.”
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