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Samsung: We'll Douse Kindle Fire With More Features, Pen, TV Integration

When it comes to Android tablets, Samsung is the anti-Amazon. While the Kindle Fire comes in just one size, Samsung has released everything from the superthin Galaxy Tab 10.1 to the Galaxy Tab 7 Plus with a built-in remote control. Then there's the Tab 8.9, the Tab 7.7 with an OLED display, and the 5.3-inch Galaxy Note with pen input. Is the company truly innovating or just throwing slates at a wall to see what sticks?

According to Ryan Bidan, product marketing manager for Samsung, it's all about offering consumers choice, even if it means mashing up categories. For example, the Galaxy Note is a cross between a phone and tablet. But it's not just about offering more options just for the heck of it. Samsung is working hard to make content creation easier--an area where the Fire doesn't excel--and to make its phones, tablets, and TVs work better together, which could help fend off a possible iPad 3+ iTV threat.

In our interview Bidan sounds off on the Fire, whether Ice Cream Sandwich really helps Android fragmentation, and what role Windows 8 will play in the next stage of the tablet wars.

The Kindle Fire has quickly become the No. 2 selling tablet. Do you believe you’re competing with Amazon as much as Apple now?

Bidan: We’re entering the market from a different place. So where those devices have kind of led with content consumption, we’ve led with the fully functional kind of multifunction tablet story. What I see happening is consumers wanting to do more with those lower-end tablets, and then there will be even more reason to switch up to Samsung.

A lot of people in the industry are arguing that Ice Cream Sandwich is a turning point for Android tablets, which haven’t sold well thus far. What’s your take on the OS?

Ryan Bidan:  Android 4.0 makes development easier for apps but also makes the consumer experience a little bit more consistent. From a mature kind of tablet development my perspective on it is that we now have some UI consistency across form factors.

But Android 4.0 tablets and phones still have significant differences. Isn’t that a problem when you’re trying to get Android phone owners to step up to a slate?

Bidan: Anybody who’s switched back and forth across multiple devices, there’s UI fatigue inherent in that. You don’t want it to be new every time you take a device out of the box. On the other hand, I also know that the things you need to do and how you need to do them on the two devices are pretty vastly different. So while you may want to have a search button or an app button in the same place, there’s a lot of other stuff that just doesn’t translate. Anybody who’s looked at a phone app blown up on the tablet knows that it’s a pretty horrible experience. So it’s balancing those two things and it’s kind of this pendulum. I think Ice Cream Sandwich has done a lot of work to kind of swing that toward unification while at the same time acknowledging that there are real differences in the user experiences. Do I know what the balance is there? No, but I think Google is working through it.

So what role does your TouchWiz software play in this dynamic and does it really add value?

Bidan: If you look between Gingerbread and Honeycomb and some of the stuff that we did on there with TouchWiz, a lot of those features are now part of Ice Cream Sandwich, so I think we’re definitely leading the way. The other piece for us is about creating an experience so that you have your choice in Android devices across multiple manufacturers, we want you to choose ours, not just because it’s the best hardware platform but also because we give you the best user experience.

How are you going to extend this user experience to other products you sell, like TVs?

Bidan: I think everybody in the space is kind of looking at that as being the next evolution here. From my standpoint it’s great. So whether your entry point is a Samsung PC or Samsung television or one of the mobile phones or one of the tablets, you get a piece of that Samsung experience. And now what we’re doing is trying to build up those synergies as you add more devices. So a phone plus a tablet is better than just a phone, and a phone plus a tablet plus a TV gives you something better than that. A phone plus a tablet plus a TV plus a washing machine and those kinds of things.

So what are you doing to bridge the gap between all of these devices?

Bidan: One of those things is AllShare, which enables you to share content across screens. Now we’re refining that  with AllShare Play, which has a cloud component. So now regardless of which Samsung stream we’re talking about, whether that’s phone, tablet, TV, fridge, you can now have that content accessible. So it’s this refinement that’s built out of the ecosystem in a way that’s a lot more usable than it has been in the past.

Your new Galaxy Note addresses content creation by adding pen functionality. Do you consider that device to be a tablet or phone?

Bidan: We’ve been pretty clear with the Galaxy Note, that we’re creating an innovative new category. And it’s a new category around personalized communication. You’re able to use the S Pen to really interact with your device in a much more analog way than we’ve been able to traditionally. It’s about getting back to that really tactile and personal communication method. We think there’s a huge amount of value in that.

Do you see Samsung leveraging pen input on larger screen sizes as well?

Bidan: Yes, I think so. I think a pen interface continues to make a lot of sense across a number of screen sizes, like the larger is more obvious of those. That’s about as specific as I can be without announcing a product.

What do you think of voice-controlling your tablet, and what other types of input are you working on?

Bidan: I think voice control is great in certain situations. Love voice control in my car. Hate voice control when I’m out at the mall. I don’t think there’s one optimal solution of user input. We’re going to see a lot of work happen around things like the S Pen, voice, and the evolution of touch around 3D gestures, so free space type gestures, as well as facial recognition. We’re talking about interacting with your device without having to physically interact with it. The evolution and integration of these different input methods will push us toward interacting with all of our different devices in a similar way.

Is Samsung working on hybrid designs like the Eee Pad Transformer Prime that have optional keyboard docks?

Bidan: At the heart of it we’re all about choice. My standpoint on the mobile side is focused on the flexibility of portable designs, so very much staying true to the mobile roots. But if you look at the other side of our business, the way we’ve attacked it, like the Windows 8 slates, some of those designs and even the Series 9 notebook is a response to some of that. I think we’re going to continue to explore different input methods.

As a company that will make both Windows 8 tablets and Android slates, how do you see their target audiences differing?

Bidan: I think right now there’s still a pretty big gulf between what the consumer expectations are around functionality on these devices. So I would suggest that if you picked up a Windows 8 slate today you would expect it to behave like your PC, with all the same connectivity and enterprise infrastructure and all of those kinds of great Windows goodness that we’ve learned to expect over the years. And so basically what they’ve done is come from that space and started to add some of that mobile user experience.

Then on the mobile side, we’re attacking it the other way, and so we’ve started with the mobile user experience and are now trying to add in all of that functionality that you would expect from PCs. The lines are certainly going to blur, but when that is, I’m not 100 percent sure yet.

So what do you see people using their tablets for in 2012 versus last year or the year before?

Bidan: A lot of what we want to see happen is to move a lot of experiences that have been traditionally chained to the desk to now being mobile. So looking at the devices now, I mean you can do 1080p video editing on them, and you can do multi-megapixel photo editing with fine control. The other thing, though, that I think the industry still hasn’t figured out is figuring out what those new-use cases are. Right now tablets let you do a lot of stuff that you do on your smartphone but on larger screens, so we as an industry and we as developers need to figure out what those new, cool things that we can now do