Conor Pierce, perhaps the most senior Irish executive in the global smartphone business today, talks with John Kennedy about the future of mobile at the launch of the flagship Samsung Note8.
I board a ship in Dublin’s docklands. It is bristling with security. Tech sales executives in branded black jackets mill obsessively around carefully tailored phone displays while creative hipster types in skinny jeans shimmy here and there and tinker with cameras, trying to look important. There is a bar but no one is drinking (yet). Somewhere on the aft deck, a DJ minces out subdued beats that eerily are in keeping with the mood of a very low, gunmetal-grey Dublin sky. The corner of my eye catches someone manhandling a harp up the gangplank. Yes, a harp. The intense feeling of expectation means it can only be a Samsung launch. And I’ve seen a few.
The occasion is the launch of the Samsung Note8, the Korean tech giant’s latest flagship device and rival to the iPhone X from Apple, also launched last week. Samsung is pulling out all the stops. You can’t blame it.
‘The consumer should be the person you are looking to engage with at the beginning, in the middle and at the end of every conversation’
– CONOR PIERCE
As well as facing the market onslaught of cheaper but technologically relevant rival devices from Chinese players such as Huawei and OnePlus, Samsung has had a horrible year that it wants to leave firmly in the past.
In what had to be the biggest product recall in tech industry history, Samsung had to call back around 2.5m Note7 smartphones last year after consumers began complaining about the devices catching fire and, in some cases, exploding.
The recall didn’t happen once, but twice, and the intensely proud brand had to suffer the ignominy of having the Note7 banned from flights around the world. After an intense investigation, Samsung pinpointed two factors: the first battery was defective and the replacement battery had manufacturing faults.
Tech consumers are a curious breed. They can be intensely loyal to a certain brand, but they can be fickle, too. They can also be forgiving and forgetful of the past if the right device knocks them off their feet.
And that’s why the Note8 launch is such a big deal to Samsung.
So, while I stood around, I played with the Note8, pretending to be nonchalant as I felt phone envy for its curved screen, trying to figure out if my mind was playing tricks on me that this was really a 6.3in screen. It seemed smaller. Impossible, I said to myself, as it became clear that this is why 2018 will be the year of the phones without bezels. My radar was out for some strange voodoo or AI as I clicked the S-pen out from beneath and the phone reconfigured itself into pen mode with such options as leaving off-screen memos or translating writing into any one of 70 languages. Sorcery, I muttered with venom.
The consumer comes first
Below decks I see the familiar face of Conor Pierce, vice-president of Samsung UK’s IT and mobile division, and probably the most senior Irish person in the entire smartphone industry today.
I have known Pierce for the best part of 17 years, mostly through his leadership roles at Nokia, at first in Ireland and through various postings in Dubai, Turkey and the UK. Six months after Microsoft’s disastrous takeover of Nokia, Pierce left Nokia for Samsung two-and-a-half years ago to take up the helm of one of the largest consumer electronics brands in one of the world’s biggest and most competitive consumer electronics markets.
He hasn’t changed much. In fact, not at all. And, in fact, his observations on the state of affairs in mobile are as upbeat as well as wry and shrewd as ever.
Recalling his experience at Nokia-Microsoft, which he referred to as the time of the “burning platform”, Pierce said: “I was the lucky one who had to try and build the Windows Phone business from scratch in the UK. I did that for about three-and-a-half years and I suppose it was a bit like working in a multibillion-euro start-up that was trying to untangle itself in half.”
Despite the struggles that Windows Phone faced, compounded by Microsoft bungling its smartphone strategy on an epic scale in a market that was dominated by consumer-friendly iOS and Android devices, Pierce said he relished building up the retail and the business side of it, and is full of praise for what he remembers as “a brilliant team”.
He said the reality of the mobile business – which he has seen evolve from a feature phone business to a full-fledged smartphone business – is that it is always about evolutions and revolutions but to survive, you need to have your instincts in check.
“What I learnt about the Microsoft-Nokia situation is that as soon as you forget about the consumer, you start failing straight away. The consumer should be the person you are looking to engage with at the beginning, in the middle and at the end of every conversation internally. It is so easy in technology to become internalised and the highway is littered with the debris of companies that became complacent. You become complacent, you start failing.”
Pierce said that the next evolution of mobile will be where the device, rather it being something shiny with ever-impressive specs, it will actually be the centre point or a concierge, so to speak, for a myriad of connected experiences.
“I’m not a fan of the expression ‘internet of things’ but we are hurtling towards a smart society where our smart homes and smart offices will be controlled by the phone in your hand or the watch on your wrist. Today, you see people crouching over their phones but the future – who knows – could involve a heads-up display. Ultimately, your phone or smart device becomes your concierge – it knows what you want, your house anticipates your arrival and much more.”
In some ways, he points out, that smart future is already here when you think of Samsung’s own AI assistant, Bixby, which he has programmed to set in chain a number of reactions, such as setting alarms and switching on the phone’s blue filter when he says, ‘Bixby, go to bed’.
What Pierce is driving at is the connected future, where a single command or set of circumstances could set off reactions in harmony around your home, in your car or on the street.
A lighthouse market
To get a sense of the scale of Pierce’s role, he is in charge of Samsung in the UK market, the third-largest consumer market in the world after the US and China. He has a staff of 150 people and overwatch of Samsung in Ireland, too.
“It’s a full-on business with a massive consumer reach but also a B2B ecosystem of operators, partners, suppliers and customers.”
‘Samsung has incredible resources. It is very unique culturally but moves at incredible speed. It is supersonic’
– CONOR PIERCE
Samsung as an organisation amazes him.
“The company has incredible resources. It is very unique culturally but moves at incredible speed. It is supersonic. Things happen very quickly. The scale of what they do, from building the Burj Khalifa in Dubai to the largest tanker on the oceans, is astonishing. We recently bought a palm tree plantation in Asia to see how we can use biofuels to power our electricity generation plants.”
Looking at the consumer electronics business, Pierce emphasises the connected future. “We make TVs, fridges, cookers, vacuum cleaners … there will be a time when all of this will be connected. The most important thing is, we will do this as an open platform.
“We want to add value to our retailers and partners but, most importantly, we want to add choice. If you want a brand of speaker or cooker, they will all just talk seamlessly. And that is what is exciting about working with Samsung.”
Out of the trenches
There is no avoiding a conversation about Samsung’s difficult year and I ask Pierce how he led his team through the Note7 recall.
He remembers it as a time when the whole organisation squared its shoulders and got to work.
“In my career in this business, it was certainly a moment I will never forget. Importantly – and it’s a credit to Samsung’s culture because it is incredibly humble – we embraced the situation.
“Of course, we always want to be No 1 in the market, we want to make sure people have the best experiences and the best innovations. But when it happened, it was a shock to the system because Samsung has always prided itself on its quality and innovation. So, it was a very humbling experience for us.
“I don’t think any company had gone through the scale of this in our industry.”
Pierce recalls it as a bonding experience for his team. “We got up every morning and met every afternoon and we had a taskforce that went through all the nitty-gritty and, remember, we were learning from scratch because no one had been through this at this scale before. I have to say, the partners we had in Ireland and the UK were incredibly supportive. It began as a successful launch but making those recalls was a very difficult decision, but the correct decision because people’s safety is of paramount importance.”
The hardest part, he said, was setting up kiosks in airports to assist new owners of Note7s to swap out their new device for a replacement S7. “I was manning them every Saturday and Sunday throughout.
“What did we learn from it? An absolute zero tolerance for any quality issues ever. We have an eight-point battery-check policy in place whereby every single device goes through a rigid testing process. During the investigation, the engineers in Korea put in place a lab with 30,000 batteries, 200,000 phones and 700 engineers who spent months figuring out the problem. They needed to get to the root cause. It was incredibly humbling.”
For the team, the Note7 crisis was transformational. “We are a much more connected team than we were before. It forced us to behave in a new way, looking for solutions and working together.”
Setting a new standard in mobile
Moving onto the Note8, Pierce is confident the market will receive it well and that the crisis will become a footnote in tech industry history.
He is reluctant to comment on the iPhone X launched just days earlier. But, when I mention the similarities between it and the Galaxy S8, he says diplomatically: “It’s nice to see our competition follow us.”
Joking aside, the Note8 is a serious piece of hardware with its own facial-recognition technology, an internal virtualised computer that can turn any TV or screen into a PC, and a 12MP camera with autofocus and live focus.
He takes my point about some AI voodoo and how machine learning is making its presence felt in this generation of devices. “I believe that as AI and voice recognition become more powerful and integrated into your life, you will have a relationship with your phone and you will be in control of it and it will be secure.
“Everything we do on our Samsung smartphones is wrapped up in Knox, a military-grade security system. Bixby knows when you are going to bed and can turn down notifications and set alarms. The Note8 can translate characters into 70 languages. It is really powerful.”
So, how will Note8 be received? “We owe a lot of credit to our Irish team for making Samsung the leading smartphone brand in Ireland, and our internal reports show there is a record number of people switching from the iPhone to Samsung.
“Our loyalty and retention rate in Ireland is quite high and people have an emotional connection with the brand.
“In the same way a lot of people love our Samsung TVs – the best you can buy – it is about bringing relevant innovation into people’s lives. If you have a Samsung TV and a Samsung phone, they connect automatically, there is no set-up required, and you can just share video and use your phone as a remote control.
“It is just a tiny example of how, in the future, we will be able to connect up all of our portfolios.”
He concludes with a smile: “You can see I still haven’t lost my passion for mobile. I enjoy it immensely.”