Conor Pierce used to fly planes.
The Dubliner, Samsung’s vice president for the UK and Ireland, held a private pilot’s licence in Ireland, flying out of Weston Aerodrome in the 1990s.
Then his family had a stern word.
“When baby number three arrived, I was informed that this wasn’t really a great activity,” he says. “But I still fancy myself as a bit of a pilot.”
He hasn’t completely given up, he says. “I just purchased a copy of Microsoft’s Flight Simulator 2020.”
Although this comes up during a chat about uses for curved televisions and monitors, it’s the kind of thing Conor Pierce drops into conversations.
The Blackrock-born executive has a taste for dare-devil hobbies, from planes to high-altitude mountaineering. The last time we talked, he pined after his “dream” of becoming a sea-rescue paramedic off the stormy west coast of Ireland.
Some of this has crossed over into his professional life.
He graduated from UCD with a Masters degree in international marketing and, after a stint in his dad’s sock factory, he moved to Ericsson, leading the Irish business from 1996.
Then Nokia called in 2004, when it was the biggest, most powerful mobile company in the world. There, he had several country manager roles across Europe.
After Nokia fell into decline following its acquisition by Microsoft, Mr Pierce was hired in 2015 to Samsung as its vice president for IT and Mobile. It was a time of intense competition with Apple, as well as some corporate misfires (principally the overheating Galaxy Note 7 in 2016, which Mr Pierce helped remediate in the UK).
That competition with Apple is still white hot, as Mr Pierce makes clear in some of the metrics he uses for assessing the progress of Samsung’s latest devices.
For example, when I ask him about whether Samsung’s €2,000 ‘folding’ smartphones are having much impact, Mr Pierce can’t resist one little nugget of data he’s noticed.
“We know that the folding form factor is attracting iPhone users like never before,” he says. “If you look at the number of people who purchased a ‘Fold’ phone last year, twice as many of them came from iPhone than a standard Samsung smartphone.”
Samsung isn’t quite saying how many Galaxy ‘Fold’ smartphones it has sold, though.
“They’re growing,” he says. “But the fact that we've we haven't had access to retail [shops] to really showcase the phones has been a bit of a challenge for us.”
Mr Pierce says that Samsung has a customer base of 1.8 million people in Ireland and claims that it has grown its overall customer base across Ireland and the UK by 1 million to 15 million in the last year.
But it wants more. January is a big month for Samsung. Not only does it show off its home technology concepts for the year, but it launches its flagship ‘S’ series phone range.
That means the Galaxy S21, Galaxy S21+ and Galaxy S21 Ultra phones, ranging from around €879 to around €1,600.
So far, the reception, while broadly positive, suggests that they deliver on incremental improvements rather than any big new idea. Is this a fair summary?
“No, I think there's been significant improvement,” says Mr Pierce.
“If you take the cameras, the the S21 Ultra has 108 megapixels and you can shoot with 8k video and take an 8k snapshot. There are also improvements to the 100x space zoom.”
There would need to be though. Many people found the 100x zoom on last year’s Samsung flagship phones to be unusably blurry and stretched.
“I'm confident that we've learned from last year,” he says. “I think it's going to be a much better experience. And I'm sure you'll put it to its test. So I'm looking forward to that feedback.”
(I’ll have an in-depth review of the high-end S21 Ultra in these pages next week. So far, the 100x zoom appears to still struggle a bit for clarity.)
One of the other main changes that can also be seen with the S21 in its lack of a charging plug. This is something Apple did with its iPhone 12, claiming environmental reasons. Samsung was among many who mocked Apple for it, but it’s now clear that it will become standard practice for smartphones across the industry.
But with Samsung, Apple and others promoting wireless charging capabilities, does Mr Pierce think the days of cabled charging may be endangered?
Yes, he says.
“I do believe the standard in the future will be wireless charging,” says Mr Pierce. “Already, 25pc of smartphone users actually choose to use wireless charging. You can get multiple device charging at the same time or even off one another. So that's definitely the trend. I also think there an obvious environmental benefit to that.”
And folding phones? Will they remain a very narrow expensive niche? Or will they become Samsung’s de facto premium range in a year or two?
“Right now, it is obviously at the ultra high premium level,” he says. “What's interesting is that during the pandemic the market dropped by around 8pc last year but the ultra premium segment grew significantly. People are willing to invest in ultra ultra premium smartphones especially for photos.”
In one sense, Samsung has benefitted from something it has had no control over: the US ban on Huawei. This has badly hurt the fortunes of what was the only large-scale Android competitor to Samsung in Europe.
“I've been around the block since the mid 1990s and I wouldn't wish that on anyone,” he says of the trade barriers put in Huawei’s way.
“And yes, we some some significant market share growth in Ireland and UK due to a lot of those Huawei customers coming home to Samsung, But to be clear, I think competition is healthy, no matter where it comes from. It puts pressure on the incumbents to think differently.”
Does he see a global split in technology emerging between western and Chinese companies, as trade and political tensions simmer?
“I wouldn’t want to comment from a global perspective, but from a UK and Ireland point of view, I think we've obviously seen an opportunity for us to grow our market share.”
Other than its phone launches, Samsung’s two standout home technology reveals this month have been a kitchen helper robot that can pick up things, thanks to an ability to ‘see’ using cameras and artificial intelligence, and a 110-inch television.
The robot home help is a seductive notion. But is it really close to fruition?
“I don’t know how soon that will actually be released,” he says. “But I do think that that concept will become quite normal in years to come.”
The giant TV is a sign of our times, Mr Pierce says.
“I think during the last 12 months, people are really looking for new tech at home,” he says. “Of course, size does matter. And TVs have seen a huge increase in the last year, for all the reasons you know about. Samsung, in its DNA, is always pushing boundaries, even though I think I'd need a new wall at home if I went that big.”
Speaking of home, Mr Pierce has been working from Ireland during the pandemic.
"It’s been great to spend time with the family. But I also get my energy from people, so I do miss that team spirit from engaging in person with my team.”