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Conor Pierce: Samsung pinning hopes on punters giving a Flip about folding phones

Samsung’s UK and Ireland mobile phone boss Conor Pierce won’t bash Huawei even if its troubles give rivals an ‘opportunity’. He spoke with Adrian Weckler about 5G and the potential of the firm's folding handsets

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The Galaxy S20 Ultra

The Galaxy S20 Ultra

Getty Images

The Galaxy S20 Ultra

Conor Pierce always dreamed of being a coastal paramedic off the west coast of Ireland. This is partly due to an unscheduled love of water. Conor was diagnosed with arthritis as a child and, to help his body adjust, took to swimming. What started out as therapy led him into competition as an elite swimmer.

Although in his late 40s, he hasn’t fully given up on rescuing sailors from stormy waters. “It’s still a bit of a dream,” he says, sipping coffee in Dublin’s Westbury Hotel, hours before heading off into high winds in Connemara for a few days.

But instead of spending Storm Dennis on emergency standby with fellow rescuers in Achill, Clifden or Dingle, Conor has been taking stock of how to reel in more iPhone customers.

As Samsung Mobile’s UK and Ireland boss, he thinks he has been given a strong hand this year, with two of the most anticipated smartphones of 2020: the new folding ‘Flip Z’ handset and its 108-megapixel sibling, the Galaxy S20 Ultra.

Both have made global headlines for different reasons. The Flip Z is the first major ‘folding’ phone to hit the market since the 2019 fiasco of faulty (and withdrawn) folding handsets from Samsung and Huawei.

The S20 Ultra, meanwhile, is the strongest test yet of how far a phone can actually go as a camera. If its 100x zoom and 108-megapixel photos prove to be stable, it promises to finish off all but the most technically advanced professional and hobbyist DSLR cameras.

It might also wrest the ultimate cameraphone title away from Apple and the newest challenger, Huawei. Samsung has had a middling time of late. Explosive growth by its main Android rival Huawei, and a resilient high-spending iPhone base, have meant limited inroads for the Korean giant.

But Samsung may now have a chance to take advantage of a unique occurrence – a US-led blacklisting campaign against Huawei when it comes to anything concerned with 5G.

Is this in Conor’s thinking? “Well, I suppose it’s an opportunity,” he says. “But it is disappointing to see that 5G is now wrapped up in that conversation where security is concerned. “The trade war between the US and China is certainly an active discussion when it comes to 5G.

During his time at the company, he managed the local recall of the ill-fated Galaxy Note 7, withdrawn in 2016 after it kept overheating. On a smaller scale last year, Samsung had to temporarily withdraw from launch its most-trumpeted product, the Galaxy Fold.

It crumbled in the hands of the first reviewers, leaving a sour taste in the minds of many consumers about the robustness of the new form factor. How did he feel that experience affected the prospects for Samsung’s new range of premium folding phones? “The company was very humble,” Conor says. “Once we realised that there were potential issues with the design of the original phone, that dust could get into the gap, we took it back and put more engineering time into it.”

Did it damage the brand? Or the concept of folding phones? “Whatever about anything else, it didn’t damage the brand,” he says. “Last year, we saw that in the Interbrand categories Samsung jumped several places to become the sixth most valued brand globally.”

Indeed, his main problem with regard to the Galaxy Flip Z folding phone is that he can’t get enough. Is there a supply chain problem? “No, it’s just demand,” he says. “I’m looking at pre-registrations and I now know that we will not be able to get enough of them. I’m actually desperate to get more.”

This appears to confirm again, if any such confirmation were needed, that demand for €1,500 (£1,260) phones shows no sign of weakening. The Galaxy Flip Z doesn’t have Samsung’s most powerful specifications. Its premium feature is that folding glass screen.

Despite what pundits might have you believe, Irish consumers are more than happy to spend large sums on the phones they really want.

“The Irish premium market segment grew by 5% last year,” Conor says, denoting a segment of the market that represents handsets over €600 (£503) in price. “Our market share grew by 2% last year.” Can that continue? Brexit looks set to have a particularly interesting effect on the price of Irish electronics due to the way in which some big brands peg their pricing here against UK distribution and warehousing.

Despite running the UK and Ireland operation from London, he says that Ireland will still get the same European-wide recommended retail pricing (RRP) following a UK-EU trade deal.

“It has caused a huge amount of uncertainty, but we always give a European RRP in Ireland and that won’t change,” he says.

Samsung, like most other mobile manufacturers, has a wider challenge of persuading people that they need 5G. For all of its 92% UK market share, sales of 5G handsets are very low. This is not just because telecoms operators have yet to complete their network upgrades (in Ireland, Three hasn’t even begun to roll it out). It’s also because few in the industry, even at this stage, can articulate a clear and immediate advantage to a 5G signal (and handset) or a 4G one.

It may also be because there’s no 5G iPhone, which is due in September. Apple has proven to be pivotal for pushing consumer demand toward, or away from, a technological direction over the years.

The point is not lost on Conor, but he points to what consumer surveys say about the new technology. “They say they want faster download speeds, better quality in calls and high-quality video calling,” he says. “They may seem basic, but if 5G gives you a better experience, people will go toward it.”

The slow demand for 5G may also be helping the small corner of the web that insists it isn’t a ‘safe’ technology and that somehow it is imbued with greater health risks than 4G or 3G before it. Given his job title, Conor wouldn’t be expected to give this much credence.

“There’s been no real evidence of that,” he says. “Even the World Health Organisation says so. But in any case, Samsung complies with all international standards on safety.”

And 5G apathy and Brexit uncertainty aside, will the Galaxy Flip Z herald a new era of folding phones? Conor says it’s just one bet in Samsung’s attempts to generate a “premium experience”. The coming months should indicate whether the market agrees.

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