Even more than most giant technology companies, Samsung loves its over-the-top live product launch extravaganzas. In 2018 and 2019, it rented out Brooklyn’s cavernous Barclays Center for the midyear edition of its Unpacked event and packed it with attendees. They witnessed the unveiling of the new version of those years’ versions of the Galaxy Note smartphone, which involved lots of fancy audiovisual effects and other rock concert-like flourishes.
Today, Samsung is holding its 2020 midyear Unpacked. For reasons I don’t need to explain, the event is being live-streamed without an in-person element.
But the fact that this version of Unpacked is an entirely virtual affair—streamed from Seoul—isn’t the only thing Samsung has changed. When I spoke with corporate executive VP Patrick Chomet recently (via Webex; he was at Samsung’s Seoul headquarters), he emphasized that the event wasn’t purely about the new Galaxy Note20. (Which, repeating the formula of last year’s Note10, is actually two models: the Galaxy Note20 and the larger, slightly more advanced, and pricier Galaxy Note20 Ultra.)
“We’re not announcing, like traditionally, one phone,” Chomet told me. “Obviously the Note will be center stage, but we’re announcing a device ecosystem.”
On the surface, this is not a radical shift. Samsung usually unveils some bonus items at its Unpacked events, such as Galaxy Watch wearables. (In 2018, it also teased the Galaxy Home speaker, a product it has yet to ship.) This year, the announcements included the Galaxy Note20 and Note20 Ultra, the Galaxy Tab S7 and S7 tablets, the Galaxy Watch3, and Galaxy Buds Live wireless earbuds.
For Chomet, the event wasn’t even just about a broader-than-usual rollout of new gadgets. As head of Samsung’s Customer Experience Office—”It’s a bit of a strange name in the West,” he notes—he’s responsible for features that span phones, tablets, PCs, TVs, and “things that we haven’t talked about yet,” as well as the partnerships that help make some of them possible.
The goal of his work “is to increasingly deliver on our vision of an integrated ecosystem and experiences,” Chomet explains. “It’s a journey that we started over four or five years ago. It takes a long time.”
Partnering in public
As you’d expect from a company with one of the most expansive product portfolios in consumer electronics, Samsung has long seen the opportunity to use software to help weave experiences together in ways that make life better if you own multiple Samsung products. In the past, it’s played up home-grown software such as its Bixby AI voice assistant, which was rarely a highlight of its products and sometimes a downright deficit. And the company hasn’t always even mentioned Google or Android during launch events, as if it weren’t particularly keen on reminding consumers that it relied on the contributions of other companies to build its experiences.
Lately, however, Samsung’s thinking has evolved. At the February version of Unpacked—one of the last big tech events that was an in-person event—Hiroshi Lockheimer, a senior VP at Google, appeared onstage as Samsung announced that it was working closely with Google on work such as integrating the Google Duo video-calling service on the Galaxy S20, Galaxy Z Flip, and future Samsung phones, so it just works right out of the box. That followed the company’s emphasis that 2019’s Galaxy Fold reflected collaboration with Google on the question of how software should work on folding-screen devices. (“We started to talk to Google quite early in the project, because we wanted to do it the right way,” Samsung’s ES Chung told me at the time.)
Samsung and Microsoft will make productivity seamless across phone and PC. That’s our vision and commitment.”
Then there’s Microsoft. Last year, when its CEO, Satya Nadella, made a guest appearance at Unpacked, his presence was a genuine surprise. But Samsung and Microsoft’s efforts to meld Samsung devices, Windows, and Office in ways that make users more productive have been going on for a few years. “Samsung and Microsoft will make productivity seamless across phone and PC,” says Chomet. “That’s our vision and commitment.”
The Samsung-Microsoft productivity effort includes a feature called “Link to PC.” Based on Windows 10’s Your Phone, with extra functionality to make it easy to find and set up, it lets you quickly associate your Samsung and Microsoft accounts to establish a bridge between a phone and a Windows PC. It started by letting you sync photos between phone and computer via Microsoft’s OneDrive, no human intervention required. At today’s Unpacked, Microsoft’s Phillip McClure showed off the ability to use a Windows laptop’s big screen to run Android apps on a Samsung phone. Also on the way are more features such as integration between Samsung’s Notes and Reminders and Microsoft’s Outlook, Teams, and other apps. (The partnership also extends to entertainment, with Microsoft’s xCloud game-streaming service coming to the Galaxy Note, which counts serious gamers among its constituencies.)
Samsung’s approach to partnerships is also apparent in its approach to music. It once had its own Spotify-like music service, Milk, which shut down in 2016. Now, instead of battling Spotify for music fans’ affections—a war Samsung was unlikely to win—the company aims to make Spotify work especially well on Samsung devices. Link your Spotify and Samsung accounts, and your Spotify playlists are available across Samsung hardware, including smart TVs.
This collaboration was also commemorated with an onstage appearance at a Samsung Unpacked event by Spotify CEO Daniel Ek in 2018. Then Samsung got to work on the infrastructure that would allow Spotify to operate across a range of devices. “We didn’t talk about it because frankly, it’s something that the industry should have done better,” says Chomet. “We had to fix our plumbing.” Now some of the groundwork that the company performed for Spotify may let it support other popular services in a way that feels elegant rather than tacked on.
The smartphone—and beyond
Meanwhile, Samsung’s experiences and partnerships still serve the new devices that the company hopes consumers will buy. The Galaxy Note20 and Note20 Ultra are ambitious smartphones, but their upgrades are mostly about incremental improvements to signature features such as the S Pen stylus, as well as the ongoing 5G rollout, not great, unexpected leaps forward. Meanwhile, folding phones such as the Galaxy Z Flip are pricey design statements, not the next mainstream breakout hits that will replace the Galaxy S and Galaxy Note lines anytime soon.
So I asked Chomet: Is Samsung’s increasing enthusiasm for cross-device experiences and partnerships a sign that smartphone hardware is no longer the driver for innovation and general consumer excitement that it once was?
Chomet didn’t knock the smartphone. But he did return to the idea that “ecosystem of things around the smartphone is becoming more important. In my view, in the not too distant future, probably the vast majority of people will have more than one device. A phone, probably. And the vast majority of them will have something in their ears and something on their arms.” It’s a safe bet that Samsung will want to play in all those categories and more to come—and encouraging that its ecosystem vision embraces the products and services that people already use.