Samsung’s 2021 year begins with the launch of CES and Galaxy S21



Samsung could get rid of its range of notes by expanding its foldables in 2021.

Angela Lang / CNET

An extended range of foldable products. More 5G phones. Smarter gadgets. Computers, televisions, appliances and a host of other devices. Maybe even lower prices. After a crazy 2020, this new year could be one of Samsung’s busiest yet.

To take advantage of the opportunity offered by 2021, the South Korean company must be more daring to regain its status as an innovative powerhouse, while keeping its promises to make life easier for consumers. It will start with Samsung Unpacked event Thursday at 7:00 a.m. PT, where it will present its new Galaxy S2 range.

Already, the company’s mobile manager has given a glimpse of what Samsung has in store. Tae-moon Roh, Samsung president and head of mobile communications, said in a blog post in mid-December that his company would expand its foldable product line and make devices more “accessible”, probably a polite way of saying cheaper. It will also put more emphasis on camera and video capabilities and bring features from its Galaxy Note devices, like S Pen support, to its upcoming Galaxy S21.

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“We have never believed in a one-size-fits-all mobile experience, and we never will,” Roh said in the blog post. He added that Samsung is working on “revolutionary advancements” in 5G, artificial intelligence and the internet of things to reset the boundaries of what mobile can do and to let consumers “tailor their mobile experiences to fit their lives — not the other way around.” 

If those topics sound familiar,  it’s because Samsung largely targeted the same areas in 2020. Samsung was one of the first companies to dive into 5G and foldables, though those bets haven’t yet paid off. There aren’t enough compelling reasons for consumers to need one of the 20 5G phones Samsung has introduced, and its foldables are too expensive to sell in high numbers. Despite the millions Samsung’s sunk into AI, its devices aren’t much better at talking to each other or interacting with their owners. And though the coronavirus pandemic created the opportunity to put the smart home at the center of everyone’s life, Samsung has been slower than Google and Amazon to make the internet of things a reality. Even with four Unpacked mobile events — Samsung’s flashy product showcases — the company wasn’t top of mind for most consumers in 2020. 

“Samsung was just forgotten for a lot of the time,” Creative Strategies analyst Carolina Milanesi said. “It lost a little bit of that cool factor it used to have.” 

In some ways, not being top of mind was good. Samsung didn’t have the problems of Huawei, which faces US sanctions and may soon run out of components for its phones, or the struggles of competing Chinese vendors dealing with the US trade war. Samsung was never called to testify before the US Congress, no phones exploded, it wasn’t the victim of a major hack, and it wasn’t criticized for failing to contain the spread of misinformation.

Still, Samsung’s lineup hasn’t created the buzz that tech products like Apple’s new 5G-enabled iPhone 12 devices have managed to generate. On Jan. 7, the company said its fourth-quarter results aren’t as strong as some Wall Street analysts expected. It earlier had warned that the fourth quarter would be weaker than the third as server customers bought fewer memory chips and as said tougher smartphone competition would hurt its results.

In 2021, Samsung will have to find a way to capture attention in a world that won’t look like the one when 2020 began. Samsung will get its first chance with an earlier-than-normal Unpacked event. 

A whole new world

Like its competition, Samsung is grappling with the coronavirus pandemic and the impact that’s having on consumers. When COVID-19 first started spreading, worries about the illness caused a dramatic slowdown in phone purchases as people around the globe decided the device they had was good enough. Demand eventually recovered as new 5G phones began to hit the market, but not soon enough to boost Samsung’s Galaxy S20 sales. Computers and TVs have been hot items with people stuck at home, and appliances are purchases consumers can put off only so long. Samsung has benefited from surging demand for all of those products.

Samsung has shifted strategy in response to what’s happening. It sped up the development and release of its Galaxy S20 FE, which, at $700, is a cheaper addition to its flagship phone lineup. It also tweaked the sales strategy for devices like the Galaxy Note 20. And it’s benefited from its less expensive Galaxy A Series, which it’s likely to expand this year.

In 2021, Samsung plans to expand the lineup of devices crucial to its future, specifically foldables. It will possibly kill off those that don’t fit with its vision, like the Note family. The first glimpses of Samsung’s plans for mobile in 2021 will come at Unpacked.

Samsung is expected to launch three new Galaxy S devices at Thursday’s event. The new S21 models will likely be the 6.2-inch S21, the 6.7-inch S21 Plus and the 6.8-inch S21 Ultra. The devices are expected to look largely the same but have bigger camera modules, boosting their photo and video capabilities. Overall, those devices aren’t expected to be major overhauls from their predecessors.

Unpacked could also mark Samsung’s expansion into new areas, including Tile-like smart trackers. 

Samsung likely won’t shake up pricing for the Galaxy S lineup. But it could make bigger changes with its other devices, including its foldables. 

Hello foldables, goodbye Note?

Like most tech companies, Samsung has struggled to sell its pricey smartphones during the pandemic. While Samsung was one of the first companies to release a phone with 5G, Huawei quickly surpassed it in shipments. The Chinese handset maker became the biggest smartphone vendor in the world in the second quarter, the first time in nine years that Samsung or Apple hadn’t held the title. 

Samsung will try to claw back ground, and US sanctions against Huawei will help it do so. Samsung overall regained ground in the third quarter to again become the top smartphone vendor as Huawei struggled to survive.

The Korean company’s 2021 phone lineup may offer more price points, including more affordable foldables. Roh said the company is “expanding [its] foldable product portfolio, so that this revolutionary category is more accessible to everyone. “It’s almost certainly code for lower prices, which could help lure consumers to what are currently budget devices. The Galaxy Z Fold 2 sells for $ 2,000, while the Galaxy Z Flip with 5G costs $ 1,450.

Samsung could keep the older generations of its foldable products at lower prices, as well as introduce newer, cheaper models while trying to help devices break out of their small niche. Yet rivals like LG will go beyond foldable screens in 2021. LG is expected to show a phone with a roll-up screen, similar to its roll-up televisions.

Samsung will need to make sure it doesn’t overwhelm buyers with too many choices. One way to do this is to cut its line of phones. By expanding the foldable options, Samsung could kill the Galaxy Note as well.

“It’s hard for Samsung to justify the Galaxy S21 and a Note 21 when they look very similar,” said Ken Hyers, analyst at Strategy Analytics. “If the ultra-premium market [phones] is limited and you don’t want to overload it with too many of these products, the Note series seems to be the one that made the most sense to cut. “

Samsung’s Note has struggled to stand out over the past few years. When widescreen devices debuted in 2011, they created a new category of devices that straddled the line between tablets and smartphones. The so-called phablets were first mocked and then copied. Now the phablet category no longer exists and it is almost impossible to buy a phone with a small screen. Apple’s iPhone SE is a notable exception.

As well as having the largest display possible, Samsung’s Note had two other selling points: It came with an S Pen stylus and had the highest possible specs. When Samsung’s first foldable, the Galaxy Fold, debuted in 2019, the Note line no longer had the flashiest components or the larger display. The main differentiator of Note from Samsung’s flagship Galaxy S line and its foldable Galaxy Z has become the stylus.

In his blog post, Roh noted that Samsung is “delighted to add some of the [the Note’s] the most popular features compared to other devices in our range. “This could indicate that the stylus is coming to the Galaxy S21, removing the last differentiator from the Note. But Samsung also continually insists on its efforts to give customers plenty of choices, it could work in the Note’s favor.

Smarter gadgets?

In previous years, Samsung has hosted one of the biggest booths – and flashiest press conferences – at CES. In 2020, the hottest news on the show was an artificial intelligence secret society created by a Samsung executive, and its “artificial humans” Neon emerged from Samsung Technology and Advanced Research Labs (STAR ​​Labs) before. that Neon does not become his own company. Although the technology was not included in any Samsung product, Neon caused a stir.

Samsung also had a cute robot, called Ballie, at the show. The idea was for the robot, which looks like a large tennis ball, to serve as a companion who follows its owner and responds to commands. At CES 2019, Samsung introduced four different types of robots to consumers.


HS Kim, head of Samsung’s electronics business, presents the Ballie robot at CES 2020.

James Martin / CNET

Like almost all big tech companies, Samsung is taking a big step forward in artificial intelligence. Technology, which gives devices a certain ability to act on their own, is seen as the next great wave of computing – the way we will interact with our gadgets in the future. Instead of sliding across our phone screens, we’ll be talking to our devices or the always-tuned microphones around our homes and offices. The ultimate promise for AI is to predict what you want before you ask for it.

Samsung’s main push with AI in its devices revolved around its voice assistant Bixby, which first arrived in the Galaxy S8 of 2017. The digital assistant has since. makes its way to smart TVs, refrigerators, washers, air conditioners, speakers and more. Samsung previously aimed to integrate Bixby voice commands into all devices it sells by 2020. But the company didn’t talk much about Bixby over the past year, and technology is seen as lagging behind Amazon’s Alexa, Google Assistant, and Apple’s Siri. The Galaxy Home smart speaker that Samsung started talking about three years ago has not come to fruition as an actual product.

Instead, Samsung seems to have put its artificial intelligence efforts into features that work behind the scenes like improved camera technology, or robots that wow audiences, but nothing else. Ballie was perhaps the cutest example of Samsung’s AI push, but the company hasn’t said anything more about the robot. (Likewise, Neon could have proved popular because people stayed home during the pandemic, but it is not available to consumers.) Samsung could use its CES 2021 press conference to show off more robots, although it would be best served by focusing on how its devices work well together.

Roh, in his blog post in mid-December, said that Samsung will have more lead in mobile AI in 2021. The company “has worked hard to extend highly advanced AI capabilities to devices across the board. within the Galaxy family, enabling our devices to continuously learn daily activities and routines for taking better photos and videos, maximizing battery life and storage, optimizing displays and more again, “Roh wrote.” We plan to extend these custom capabilities to all facets of the Galaxy product portfolio to empower people to be productive and do whatever they love. “

Now Samsung must make its new offering live up to that promise.

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