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Samsung Reminds Us It Can Innovate, but Will That Be Enough?

Samsung's latest phones and accessories look interesting, but they may not be enough to jolt high-end smartphone sales.

In recent years, Samsung has captured the global lead in smartphone sales, and stood alone as the colossus of Android — the only Android hardware maker successful enough and profitable enough to go toe to toe with Apple.

But the Korean giant’s smartphone sales dropped last quarter. And the smartphone market as a whole seems to have hit a pause in the kind of big innovation that gets consumers excited.

Meanwhile, Samsung’s archrival Apple will suck the oxygen out of the tech media next week, with a flashy event in its hometown of Cupertino, Calif. Apple is expected to roll out two new iPhones, which will finally be of the large-screen variety that has sold so well for Samsung. It’s also expected to unveil its first wearable device, something Samsung has already done, but with little success. And it is rumored to be announcing a phone-based payment system that, if done right, could make its new iPhones more attractive.

So, this morning, in New York, Samsung struck first. It didn’t just introduce a new standard model in its popular stylus-based Galaxy Note line of phones, as it usually does around this time of year. It also unveiled three more unusual products: A phone with a screen that’s curved at one edge to display icons and information, a smartwatch that can connect to a cell network all by itself and virtual-reality goggles that are powered by a phone.

While I’ve only spent a short time with these devices, they look interesting, and could certainly appeal to some groups of users. But I’m not sure they change enough of what a phone is about, for enough people, to support the message Samsung says it wants to send.

The main message is that Samsung is a leader in innovation, in design and in pleasing customers.

The subtext: Smartphones and their accessories are even cooler than before, and you need a new one, even if we sell it at premium prices (this will also be part of Apple’s message, of course).

To me, the most initially intriguing of the products is the phone with the curved screen, the Samsung Galaxy Note Edge. The right vertical edge of the screen curves down around the side of the phone, and is treated like a very thin second display. So, for instance, it can show a column of small icons that launch your favorite apps. Or it can display a one-line crawl of headlines or sports scores from Yahoo. It can also show notifications, or a slender alarm clock when the phone is lying flat on your nightstand.

Maybe it will take the world by storm. But I found myself wondering how much it would improve life with my phone. I don’t really have trouble finding my favorite app icons. While it would be nice to set notifications off to the side, I’m still unlikely to be able to prevent them from interrupting me.

Plus, in typical Samsung fashion, there’s a whole rabbit hole of settings for doing different things with this curved part of the screen. Software curation remains a weak point for Samsung.

Oh, and the Edge will cost even more than the standard Galaxy Note, which itself typically costs more than the Galaxy S model, which outsells the Note in the U.S., and is usually regarded here as the head-to-head competitor to the latest iPhone.

As for the Galaxy Gear S watch and Gear VR goggles, the former is still large, and is expected to have a relatively short battery life. The latter is likely to appeal to a limited number of people, and Samsung was vague about how many games and other virtual-reality content it will be able to offer, and when.

I’m not saying that Samsung doesn’t deserve credit for making new and different things. It does. Heck, even the most familiar of the new devices, the Galaxy Note 4, has some nice features for stylus lovers, like the ability to shrink and move around app windows, an improved camera, a sharper screen and a better pen.

Making things better or different is good. But I’m not sure this latest crop from Samsung, other than the Note 4, will provide the kind of positive jolt Samsung is looking for.

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