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Samsung mobile chief: Galaxy S8 is ticket out of Note 7 'hell'

D.J. Koh talks about lessons learned from last year's Note 7 debacle and those exploding batteries.

When Koh Dong-jin says he knows what it means to journey from "heaven to hell," he's not overstating things.

About nine months after being named head of Samsung's world-leading mobile business, Koh, 56, was forced to recall the popular Galaxy Note 7 not once, but twice, because the large-screen phone kept bursting into flames. After Samsung's "safer" replacement phones caught fire, too, Koh killed off the Note 7 in October, taking more than 2.5 million phones off the market.

In both cases, the culprit was the battery.

It was a big black mark on Samsung's reputation as the world's largest smartphone maker. It didn't help that it all happened just as archrival Apple released its iPhone 7. For Koh, who goes by "D.J.", it was a "very painful experience" -- an "eye-opening experience."

No kidding.

Now Koh and Samsung are readying what they hope will be a fresh start with the Galaxy S8, the company's newest flagship phone. There's a lot resting on this slab of metal and glass with a 5.8-inch display (6.2 inches for the S8 Plus). But what really catches the eye is just how big that black screen is. It stretches nearly across the entire front of the phone, curving slightly around the long sides to give the effect that it goes on forever. Samsung calls it the Infinity Display.

If all goes well, Samsung could shed the lingering bad rep and get a jump on Apple's 10th anniversary iPhone, expected later this year. That's certainly Koh's plan. "I do not want to stay in hell too long," he tells me from Samsung's headquarters, two weeks ahead of Wednesday's introduction of the Galaxy S8 at a splashy event in New York.

We're meeting in a large conference room on the fifth floor of Samsung's 28-story, ultramodern offices in Suwon, South Korea, about 21 miles outside of Seoul. I was one of five US reporters invited to the company's sprawling campus, called Digital City, to hear what the tech giant has been doing to make its phones safe. Really safe, this time.

Koh knows how high the stakes are for the S8. That's why he's pulled out all the stops to make sure it's a success, including rigorous battery testing, a sleek design, that massive new screen and even a digital voice assistant, called Bixby, you can use to control the phone.

We also talked about Samsung's pace of design changes, why he believes Samsung has its AI right this time, and just how big a hurdle he faces in winning back customers burned by the Note 7. Oh, and he'd loved to see a foldable phone someday. He's just not sure when.

Here's an excerpt of our conversation, edited for clarity.

Jaehyuk Oh

What's so great about the Galaxy S8?

[The Galaxy S8] was not prepared just in a day, [or a] year. Some areas I started five, six years ago.

How could we [make] our device more customer-friendly? How can we enhance the customer's daily life? Senior persons, they are not familiar with operating a mobile device with voice, but I believe someday, for the interaction between the device and human, voice is inevitable. And we must put intelligent functions on top of voice.

You heard about our features and functions [with Bixby]. Many people are already familiar with touching the screen. We are not just going to [add voice] to the interface. We are providing a multimodal interface: You can operate the mobile phone by voice as well as touch.

We have been listening to our customers about what kind of next user interface is necessary. Many people made the comment, "I wish my mobile phone could become like my personal assistant." All of those kinds of thinking were initiated, I would say, five or six years ago.

When we introduced the Galaxy S6 Edge [in 2015], we were thinking, this is going to be Samsung's identity, the Edge design. But at the time, frankly speaking, we didn't utilize the Edge properly. The year after, we knew that many Galaxy customers loved the Edge design. I decided when I introduced the S7, we just kept the Edge design as an option.

When we introduced the Galaxy S7, some people were not happy because Samsung didn't change the design. "Why did they keep the same design as the S6?" Well, changing design takes time. It takes around two years or three years to change design. The design should [have] very meaningful innovation, not just changing the design [for its own sake].

With the S8 [and] S8 Plus, we were thinking about how to break down the boundaries, not just change the design.

Jaehyuk Oh

You lost customers with the Note 7. How do you convince people to come back to Samsung?

That was a very painful experience, painful accident. It was an eye-opening experience. By our daily investigation process, we realized we must increase the safety of our device as well as the battery.

My main focus was how [to] deliver meaningful innovation to our end customers to make their lives happy, enjoyable but -- what is the most important thing I missed -- customer and product safety.

Afterward, I set up a principle: Meaningful innovation should keep going where we can make our customers happy continuously. But on top of it all, customer safety. It will take time, but ... I strongly believe I can bring our customers' trust back.

Samsung often comes out with new technologies first. Did that lead to some of the issues with the Note 7?

In the mobile industry, driving leading-edge technology to be No. 1 in the market is the most important thing. But whether those leading-edge technologies are meaningful to customers or not, that's another very, very crucial point. Samsung is driving innovation by showing leading-edge technology in the world. It's no doubt important -- the most important thing.

I wouldn't say that was related to the Note 7. I don't think so. Ask my R&D engineers whether I pushed the schedule. I never pushed the schedule.

How important is it for the Galaxy S8 to be a hit?

Last year was my first year [as head of Samsung's mobile business]. It was like heaven to hell. I do not want to stay in hell too long.

I heard lots of criticism from my customers and partners. "Hey D.J., you have a TV, refrigerator, washing machine. You have everything. But why are your devices not connecting?" Whenever I heard it, I felt very ashamed. But the Galaxy S8 is a starting point, a starting product to connect all of Samsung devices by cloud and artificial intelligence.

The Galaxy S8 would be the first product where we enable all Samsung products to connect. The Galaxy S8 is [such a] meaningful device in my Samsung life and career.

Samsung has struggled with software and services. How is the S8 different?

The last two, three years, I would say maybe our services and software were not so good. I will admit that. Because at that time, the organization was separate, not in the mobile division. In 2015, that organization, 100 percent, came under my control. Whether it was under my control or not under my control -- that is not the point.

But we didn't have a clear understanding of our ecosystem, software, services and solutions. I wouldn't say that Samsung has perfect understanding of software and services [now], but we are getting familiar with it. The Galaxy S8 and S8 Plus is the right device to embrace to communicate with our end customer, "Oh, Samsung is now changing regarding services and solutions."

Samsung has introduced software only to kill it off, like Milk Music. What's your commitment to Bixby and Samsung Connect?

I promise. Shara, you can buy another used car from me. I have many used cars.

You're still doing well in the US, but in China, local manufacturers like Huawei are gaining ground. Do you feel threatened by them?

[With] other companies, it's monitoring and learning. What I have learned in China [is] we missed a couple of things. We can do better in China, then [apply those lessons] in other areas such as Southeast Asia, India. In a nutshell, [we're going to work on] meaningful innovations, provide services and solutions, and continuously make our customers happy. That is the right way to keep our market share and keep our brand value in the market.

How much longer will the world primarily use a black slab of glass to access the internet?

I may not be able to say the prediction of 2030, but I may be able to say in 2020 what kinds of things we'll get and what kind of preparation is necessary. On the hardware design side, you need very high-quality displays, you need very powerful application processors and memories and all those kinds of [components]. We can predict [in] at least three years, AI will be very, very deep embedded in our device, a real personal assistant. I'm able to say that.

Is Samsung working on foldable and flexible devices?

I'm very much interested in that form factor. If you ask me, "Hey D.J., can you commercialize this year a flexible form factor of a smartphone?" Today I will say maybe not. But that form factor, I'm very, very much interested in. That's one I want to try in the future.