BARCELONA, Spain -- Bright lights, orchestras, stage shows, and spin -- these are the trappings of a modern technology press event. Of course, the most basic purpose of these events is to share new product details with the press and, ultimately, potential consumers. But today's press conferences have turned into so much more. If you've never attended one, you're missing a certain blend of magic and despair.
A good tech event is not easy to pull off. And Samsung, despite producing some massive tech stars, has struggled to hit on a winning script. Remember the bizarre and possibly sexist Radio City Music Hall debut of the Galaxy S4? Or Michael Bay's on-stage meltdown at Samsung's CES press event? How could anyone forget?
Last night's Samsung Unpacked 5 event promised to reveal the Galaxy S5, but most Samsung watchers have learned to expect some sort of spectacle. Here's the story of how the evening played out, and what Unpacked 5 says about what Samsung has learned.
Act one: The scrum
Samsung's Unpacked 5 event popped up in a super-modern conference hall somewhere in Catalonia. Journalists lined up hours in advance, first chatting with each other, some (ahem, Roger Cheng) filing scoops from the sidewalk outside the venue. As the hours passed, reporters and analysts in the long lines began to shuffle uncomfortably, rubbing their eyes, leaning into each other around the doors. At the appointed time, 1.5 hours before the presentation, Samsung reps opened the building's doors, greeting the crowds with trays of sangria served up. A few in the crowd accepted refreshments, but most jogged -- some sprinted -- past the servers to the next set of doors, still closed. There, we queued.
The wait grew long ... and warm. Backpack wearers shifted from foot to foot, unwittingly smacking neighbors in the face. Eyes were rolled. The Wi-Fi went down. It got hotter. At some bleak moment, a few guys in the front of the scrum of hundreds attempted the wave. The rest of the crowd, wan and dehydrated, did not respond.
Twenty minutes before the supposed start time, we saw movement by the doors. Cheers! Clapping! We may have developed Stockholm Syndrome. The doors opened, and the crowd stampeded toward the front. Photographers threw elbows as they surged toward coveted aisle seats, and the occasional attendee feebly yelled, "Don't push!"
But then legitimate excitement began to bubble up while we all pulled out laptops, focused lenses, and continued to struggle with Wi-Fi to prepare for live coverage. The anticipation and the massively amplified musical prelude performed live by the Barcelona Opera House Chamber Orchestra gave the crowd a burst of eagerness. New hero phones are the Sofia Vergara of the tech journalism world, and we were all ready for some gadgets. After all, we risked bodily harm to get a front row introduction to them.
Act two: The show
This is where things started to look up. Kind of.
Samsung is damned if it does, damned if it doesn't when it comes to launch events. No one at the company (or possibly any other company) will ever orate as effectively as Steve Jobs, but Samsung's massive marketing efforts rely on these events -- produced to the hilt and clearly propped up by a tower of money -- to generate a fever pitch of excitement a lá an Apple event they need to compete in high-end markets.
Last night, when the lights dimmed in the auditorium of more than 1,000 people and only keyboard taps and shutter clicks are audible, Samsung took a new approach. It simply cut to the chase. No muss, no fuss -- or, rather, less fuss.
After a brief intro by Samsung marketing staffer David Park and while the crowd (still frantically attempting to use the onsite Wi-Fi) calmed down, Samsung co-CEO JK Shin received an on-stage introduction from a Samsung marketing chief. The businesslike-but-kindly Shin thanked the crowd, and sincerely: "We very much appreciate the 200 million customers who have purchased our Galaxy S devices." There was some braggadocio, but a bit of humble sincerity, too, and it was nice to hear.
Of course, there was plenty of exaggeration and spin throughout the presentation, but that's nothing new in the world of tech demos. A few minutes on, Shin entered the Department of Redundancy Department portion of the presentation with this choice quote: "People are easily excited by tech breakthroughs that are groundbreaking." But the crowd moved on when Shin introduced the Galaxy S5, clapping as a video of blindingly attractive people using the Galaxy S5 roared onto giant screens.
After holding up a white GS5 like a magical chalice, Shin launched into a ceremonial list of superiority claims. Nearly every live press event by every major manufacturer trots out executives to list firsts and wins for their products, and Unpacked 5 was no different. The Samsung Galaxy S5 takes the world's fastest photos! It's the first to support Wimo Wi-Fi! First-of-its-kind heart-rate sensor! These claims sound strong, but some -- upon a few seconds of observation -- wear thin.
Shin says the phone's design "has a unique, perforated pattern. It is modern and refreshing with a variety of color options to reflect each user's personality." Claps rose from parts of the audience where significantly less media sat. Are these clappers actually Samsung plants trying to excite the crowd? We'll never know. Meanwhile, Twitter heated up with equal parts "ooh, ahh" and "The back of that thing looks like a Band-Aid." In the room, though, Samsung approached the presentation with the attitude that if they say the design is beautiful enough times, we might agree -- a very Steve Jobsian approach. The soundtrack thumped so loudly that our ribs shook.
Shin kept going, rattling off improvements in Samsung's two smartwatches, the Gear 2 and the Gear Neo. Applause dwindled. And then -- finally -- Shin broke out something new and exciting. The Gear Fit health band, while just one more fitness band in a cramped field, really does look exciting and different. The curved display brings the vivid colors of a smartphone screen to a band that looks for all the world like jewelry. Complete with a heart rate monitor and the ability to do some pretty cool things (like helping guide you to your misplaced smartphone when the two are paired). Applause ensued.
Act three: The sigh of relief
At this point in the show, we steeled ourselves for more, and we got more: Samsung VP of European Telecom Operations Jean-Daniel Aym prattled about the pros of these products and their services, plus more big claims for the phone. Park came back out to give more details regarding the three Gear devices. Their presentations were straightforward and workmanly -- even a little bland. Then, the shocker: Abruptly, less than an hour into the event proper, it all ended. Done. Over. No one fled the stage like Michael Bay. No antics offended a major demographic group.
Park announced, "Ladies and gentlemen, please make your way to the product experience area." Giant doors swung open to reveal a cavernous back room swirling with dry ice and with the new devices laid out to sample. Most in the audience dashed to the room immediately. Some sauntered out front to smoke or chat. A few immediately headed to an upstairs reception featuring more sangria and generous tapas.
Suddenly, the mood among the many hundreds of attendees lifted as the crowds dispersed, clattering across the marble floors of the convention hall, smiling and chatting. While this was no Cirque du Soleil performance and some of us went through hell to get into the presentation, we got the information we came for. At the end of the day, this whole industry craves time to touch and feel tech that's new, interesting, and a glimpse at the future -- even if it's just a fitness band with a fancy screen. Samsung finally, finally figured that out.