Call it a makeover. Samsung has long had a reputation in America for being businesslike, mechanical, and inscrutable. At the tech giant's annual developer conference, the presentations are usually led by older Korean men in business suits who tout products like hype men at a 1950s auto show.
Not this year. What I've seen this week at SDC2016 in San Francisco is a company that seems more relaxed, down-to-earth, human, funny, and even, well, cool.
Case in point: The second person onstage today after smartphones head honcho DJ Koh was Injong Rhee, head of R&D in Samsung’s software and services business. Injong, an ex-NC State professor, has near-shoulder-length hair, and cracked jokes about it repeatedly during his presentation. He even displayed graphs showing the inverse relationship between the pace of Samsung software development and the length of his hair. It was actually funny—something you almost never see in a keynote.
Such high-level speeches are also often doctored to death by marketing people, then scrubbed clean by attorneys before they see the light of day. But these keynotes didn’t have that sound. The presenters made jokes. They referenced their personal lives. The point of these events is to fire up developers to create products for Samsung devices and platforms, but the people I heard didn't try to do with it with a lot of superlatives and marketing jabber—they pretty much stuck to the things that matter to developers.
I learned from a source later in the day that Samsung brought in help from the outside to help the keynote speakers seem more relevant to developers. No shame in that.
Samsung knows it needs to work on its image in the West. In truth, it's in the middle of a wide-ranging transformation of its public persona. You can see it in the company's TV ads—they're (arguably) funny, they leverage celebrities with cultural cache (William H. Macy, Lil Wayne), and they never take their products too seriously.
Out in the hallways, development partners are showing off music and personal health apps and devices. Samsung’s version of Garageband—called Soundcamp—was featured in the keynote address, and a DJ in a booth in the exhibit hall spun music developed with the app.
Producers of virtual reality films and other content are in no short supply here. VR content creation tool makers like Unity and Wevr are featured in the breakout sessions. You can hear people screaming in a group VR experience from a booth across the exhibit hall. The current lead guitarist for KISS (Knights in Satan’s Service), Tommy Thayer, is walking around (no makeup); he's here talking up his new VR app for kids.
Rapper Flo Rida ("Not to be confused with Florida," as his Wiki page says) will be holding court at the press gathering later in the day.
In the press room at about 3 p.m. yesterday, a big rumble came from the floor below where the Underworld was apparently doing a deafening sound check, getting ready for the big SDC party that night.
This is a different Samsung than what I saw even just a couple of years ago. Even if some of it seems a little forced, you have to admire the company's intentions. It certainly makes the South Korean giant a more interesting company.