Popularizing ultra-high-definition TV and making homes "smarter" will be the major focus for South Korean technology giant Samsung Electronics in 2014, the company's co-CEO said in a rare interview at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas.
Boo-keun Yoon seldom speaks directly to the media, but in an exclusive sit-down interview with CBC News at CES he revealed some of the areas that Samsung Electronics is betting will drive the technology industry this year.
Yoon’s predictions carry weight, as he is often credited with leading Samsung’s ascendancy to the top spot of the global television market. Known as BK to his colleagues, he took up the reins as co-CEO of Samsung Electronics in March of last year along with J.K. Shin, who is in charge of telecommunications and mobile products.
One of Yoon's forecasts is that big screens that go well beyond that image quality of standard high-definition displays will become affordable for the average consumer this year.
When the first ultra-high-definition televisions started appearing with sky-high price tags around a year ago, it seemed likely it would take a long time for the technology to become affordable enough for mainstream buyers. But things are changing a lot faster than many expected, according to Yoon.
“The price gap between full HD and UHD will be less than 10 per cent by the end of this year,” Yoon said.
UHD – also called 4K because of the nearly 4,000 pixels of horizontal resolution on screen, double that of regular HD – is a natural evolution of panel technology, he explained. As such, it doesn’t require the same investment in new production infrastructure that 3D television did a few years ago, which is allowing prices to fall rapidly.
Most major manufacturers, Samsung included, are showing off new UHD/4K TV spring product lines at CES. Few are committing to prices as of yet, but an existing 50-inch UHD TV can currently be had for about $3,500.
If Yoon’s price prediction is correct, higher-resolution panels will soon make the transition from being luxury items for wealthy hobbyists to natural screen-replacement options for mainstream buyers.
Still, some industry analysts and consumers are cautious, if not skeptical, about UHD technology and its retail appeal. The Consumer Electronics Association is estimating that only about 60,000 4K televisions will be sold in the United States in 2014, and Canada would likely see about a tenth of that.
Despite the likelihood of rapidly falling prices, the television market is still stinging from previous efforts by manufacturers to spur screen sales with technology such as 3D and “smart” internet functionality. Despite both ultimately becoming commonplace features, they were largely regarded as gimmicks when they were launched.
3D also failed to take off as quickly as manufacturers had hoped because of a lack of content. That doesn’t seem to be a problem this time around, with an ecosystem of content providers quickly forming around UHD. Netflix, Google, Amazon and others have already committed to producing and distributing video in the higher resolution, so UHD is not a gimmick, Yoon said – it’s real.
“We’re also working very hard on co-operating with content providers such as Netflix, M-GO, Amazon, Comcast, Time Warner Cable [and others] so that customers will end up with more content,” he said.
Smarter, "connected" homes are another area of consumer electronics where Yoon expects big changes in 2014. It's not a new concept, but it's one that Yoon says is finally on the brink of becoming reality.
Alternating between answering questions in English and through his Korean translator, he prefaced his comments about smart homes by attributing his rise through the ranks of the giant multinational to the values he shares with Lee Byung-chul, who founded the company in 1938. Yoon's management style, as well as his approach to technological problems, borders on a metaphysical spirituality, with the belief that any issue can be overcome through the proper mindset.
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“We all know we are just dust when we compare ourselves to this large universe,” he said. “I think it’s pretty foolish to think, ‘We can do this, or we can’t do this,’ so we try our best to continually think about overcoming the challenges or issues that we have. When we’re faced with a limit, that’s when we think we can start over.”
That line of thinking is driving the company’s quest to bring about the smart, connected home that has been hyped for many years, a market that is expected to be worth more than $60 billion by 2017. So far, digital appliances – refrigerators and washing machines that connect to the internet and to smartphones – have been too complicated in general, Yoon acknowledges, forcing users to go through too many steps to use their associated apps.
To that end, Samsung is this year rolling out the Smart Home protocol (SHP), a software system that aims to smooth communications and ease of use between its own appliances and mobile devices by giving the user a single point of control – say, a tablet.
It’s an attempt to unify the disparate appliances and devices in the home to one common, user-friendly system.
“Ultimately a smart home would mean a home where the devices are very easy to use, so an environment where the devices understand the consumers and their needs,” he said. “If there’s a lot of depth to a device, it’s going to take a lot of time and investment to get used to them, but if we make the depth really shallow and easy for consumers to use then I think that pain point will be reduced dramatically.”
SHP is Samsung-only for now, but Yoon said the company plans to offer it to other manufacturers and application developers, with the goal of making all home devices interoperable soon.
“Within the next two or three years there will be a boom in this area,” he said.