Thursday 26 April 2018

Samsung chief: we need to look smart to take control of phones

As handsets dominate our lives and tech giant Samsung launches its addictive S9 Plus, Conor Pierce tells Adrian Weckler it's time for a heads-up approach

Conor Pierce of Samsung believes camera technology and security will be a major focus as we redefine our relationship with our phones and see increasing reliance on them as a ‘smart society’ rises.
Conor Pierce of Samsung believes camera technology and security will be a major focus as we redefine our relationship with our phones and see increasing reliance on them as a ‘smart society’ rises.

Irish people look at their phone 57 times every day, more than any other country in Europe. Or so says Conor Pierce.

He should know, though - he's the head of Samsung IT and Mobile in the UK and Ireland, which is Europe's joint biggest electronics and tech market.

And yet even as his company launches what is regarded as the main competitor to Apple's iPhone X - the Galaxy S9 - Pierce has somewhat counterintuitive thoughts about the place of smartphones in our lives at present.

"We're becoming a heads-down society," says Pierce, referring to people walking along the street with their faces stuck in phones.

"In Ireland, there's a real debate about this. Maybe we have a more social culture than others but we do all have a responsibility, as do the social media giants, in trying to encourage a bit more discipline in how we use our phones. How do we get people to get their heads up?"

Pierce, an active outdoors climber and adventurer, has his own tricks to curb any temptation at bingeing.

"I put my phone in another room with the alarm so that I have to get up and retrieve it instead of having it beside me as I'm falling asleep," he says.

"For a lot of people, the phone is the last thing they do at night and the first thing they do in the morning. That's fine, but I do think that everyone needs some quality time."

In one way, Samsung isn't really helping. Its latest S9 Plus phone is probably the company's most accomplished device. Its screen has been rated as the best on any electronic or electrical device, while its camera breaks new ground in the all-important low-light scenario.

Read more: Tech Review: Samsung S9 camera puts it in the frame for top spot

To be blunt, there hasn't ever been a more addictive phone in Samsung's repertoire.

And it may even get worse (or better, depending on your perspective).

Samsung's next major goal is to tie together all of the products it makes - from tellies and phones to fridges and smartwatches - so that they're all connected. In the short term, this means that your phone becomes a remote control to your house. For example, when you walk into your living room with a Galaxy phone, a Samsung TV will detect it and enable you to control it from your phone.

In other words, your phone will become even more central to your daily movements.

Pierce chooses to view this as asserting control over the phone rather than the other way around. He also points to the benefits that a joined-up smart household brings.

"Right now you need to be tech savvy to patch all that stuff together," he says, referring to competing smart gadgets like the Nest and Philips Hue light bulbs and Amazon Echos. "But in the future it should be a lot more simple. And yes, your phone will be more of a slave to you, with you being the master instead of the other way around."

If the jury remains out on this, Pierce is still hoping that other elements of phones such as the S9 can augment healthy, more active ("quality time") activities.

To this end, he thinks that Samsung Health - and health apps in general - could yet become a big selling point for top end smartphones like the S9.

Read more: The world of payments is changing and Ireland has the ability to lead the way - Visa Ireland chief Philip Konopik

"The UK and Ireland has one of the highest Samsung Health user ratios in the world without much marketing," he says. "People who use it tend to love it. Now we're starting to look at questions such as how to build Bixby [Samsung's artificial intelligence assistant] into Samsung health. Could it be an entry into your local GP? I'd love to see it make much more in this area."

Personally, Pierce has had an interesting journey through the mobile world.

Despite still being relatively young, he is a veteran of the industry. He led the Irish business for Ericsson from 1996, a period when it switched over to Sony Ericsson. He then joined Nokia in 2004, seeing the Finnish giant mop up a staggering 84pc market share in Ireland before the introduction of the iPhone in 2007 spelled Nokia's doom.

Before its demise, however, Pierce spent 12 years at the company, landing big jobs in the Middle East, Turkey and the UK, where he somehow managed to carve out a 10pc market share for Nokia Lumia (Windows) smartphones.

But with a lack of support from key app developers in the industry, Microsoft's phone business started to implode. In 2015, Pierce joined Samsung as its vice-president for IT and Mobile, a job he still has.

In the last three years, he has witnessed some tumultuous times at Samsung, the peak of which was the recall of the exploding Note 7 phone.

"I was in the airport on the day that we had to do our recall, collecting phones from people," he previously told the Irish Independent. "We set up kiosks there so people could swap them. Because otherwise the phone was going to be confiscated [by the airline]. What were people supposed to do, miss their flight? Or lose their phones? So we said 'We'll take your phone off you, here's an S7 Edge, we'll transfer all your stuff onto it, so they would have something to go back with.

"We had a task force set up from first thing in the morning until last thing at night."

Read more: Adrian Weckler: Samsung's S9 Plus rules but S8 users may not want to trade up

It was a gutsy move that ultimately paid off.

Both in the UK, Ireland and globally, Samsung appears to have suffered almost no fall-off whatsoever in its business since the Note 7 fiasco. If anything, it has tightened its grip on the global smartphone market alongside Apple, shoving everyone else (with the exception of Huawei) to the side.

Indeed, Pierce quotes industry figures to claim that there's been a 40pc increase from people moving from iOS (iPhone) devices to Samsung devices. Apple may well have something to say about that.

And while the latest Galaxy S9 wows with its camera and its screen, it hasn't added much else of note over last year's Galaxy S8 (full review on Independent.ie)

But Pierce says that where it really counts on features, Samsung is hitting its sweet spot.

"The S9's good performance in orders is an indication of the importance of the camera," he says. "The camera is now the number two reason for getting a phone. The top reason, by the way, is getting online - 5G is a big coming thing. Our phones are really well-positioned."

And the next big thing in phone technology? With edge-to-edge displays, there's nowhere really left to go with the screen. Can we push camera technology even further without challenging the laws of physics?

"I believe we'll continue to see innovations in camera technology," says Pierce. "That's definitely a focus for future design in the industry. Security and safety are hot topics now, too. We could open Knox [Samsung's security standard] up to partners. And then 5G is going to be a massive platform, leading eventually to a ubiquitous smart society that will have things like connected homes, more digital lifestyles, connected health and greater productivity.

"All of these things are being taken into consideration when the next phones are designed."

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