No tech company goes as big as Samsung does with its product announcements.

Photo: David Pierce/Protocol
Even Samsung struggles to explain why people need a 5G phone

Even Samsung struggles to explain why people need a 5G phone

At a flashy launch event Tuesday, Samsung introduced "the phone of the future" but blew the sales pitch.

Tuesday was Samsung's chance to tell the world about the future. Even if it had already leaked it a bit. Ahead of its annual Unpacked launch-stravaganza, Samsung teased its big announcement — a foldable, likely 5G phone — on Sunday during the Oscars. Foldable phones and 5G, for Samsung and so many other companies, are the future of tech. Samsung built itself a giant stage from which to tell the world what's coming next and convince customers to spend money to upgrade early. In the end, it did neither.

In the hours before the event at San Francisco's Palace of Fine Arts, which Samsung seemed to have renovated practically top-to-bottom for the occasion, coronavirus was actually the topic of the day. Warning signs in the line and bathrooms; two CrowdRX stations using cameras to scan for high body temperatures; attendees throughout the crowd wearing face masks. I coughed at one point and multiple people shot me concerned, "You better not be the one" looks. Samsung's Sero TV was everywhere, silently rotating in the dark hallway leading to the event space, but coronavirus was what everyone talked about.

Once things kicked off, though, the spectacle was … the spectacle. No tech company goes as big with its product announcements. The vibe in the room, as the lights went down and a teaser video of that folding phone played across nearly a dozen screens while the bass-heavy music rattled the concrete floors, was less "press conference" and more "Coachella." Samsung head of mobile T.M. Roh was introduced by a montage of San Francisco scenery so epic that you half expected it to end with Sylvester Stallone boxing to end the Cold War.

The Galaxy Z Flip was the first and most significant announcement. "It changes everything," Rebecca Hirst, head of UK mobile product marketing. The size of a phone; the shape; the way it's used. Samsung's pitch for the device reminded me of the Apple Watch — that this device isn't for people who care about camera specs and processor speeds, but for people on the cutting edge of culture. It's a fashion statement, not a phone. Samsung even worked with the designer Thom Browne on a custom set of Galaxy devices, a playbook not unlike Apple's work with Hermes and others. But there's no $13,000 Z Flip, so Samsung at least found one Apple Watch idea to stay away from.

The big question about the Z Flip, though, felt more existential: Who cares about foldable phones? Samsung has a long history of creating successful devices that never seem to reach game-changing status. The Note's integrated stylus appealed to millions of buyers but didn't inspire much competition or change the way apps work. The Galaxy lineup was among the first to bet that bigger screens were better screens, but in general is filled with devices that don't really make a case for themselves beyond doing everything pretty well.

That's why Samsung executives spent so long trying to explain why users need foldable phones. They extolled the virtues of a hinge that props the phone up for easy selfies, and showed it could be a handy stand for video chatting. It felt like a callback to the flip phones of old, which used that clamshell shape to make it easy to answer and end calls. This one's the same, but now instead of phone calls people are making video calls. (The one spec that does seem important given Samsung's recent history with foldable phones: The Z Flip's screen is made of foldable glass that Samsung says will last up to 200,000 folds.)

When Roh and Samsung Vice President Drew Blackard started to explain Samsung's 5G plans, framing 2020 as "the year of Samsung 5G," they seemed to feel no need to explain the tech's benefits. 5G is, well, it's very fast. And that's that. The Galaxy S20 and Galaxy Z Flip have lots of new camera features, great screens … and 5G. You get it.

The most interesting feature of the phone, actually, is Samsung's series of partnerships. The company's been working with Microsoft to build a game-streaming Xbox experience for Samsung phones; with Netflix to enhance the viewing experience; with Google to offer YouTube Premium and Duo calls; and with Spotify to improve sound quality. Samsung, which typically loves to make everything itself — remember Milk Music? Bixby? Samsung Pay and Health and Cloud and all the others? — is getting better at working with the services people already love.

Still, as upgrade cycles get longer, and the reason people buy new devices shifts from "cool new features" to "my old one died," Samsung needed to make a case that it's offering something — a 5G device, a foldable one — that was worth an early upgrade. It never quite got there.

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