BARCELONA -- Is Samsung obsessed with outdoing the Apple iPhone? Not exactly, but it's a fair question.
Samsung on Sunday announced its new Galaxy S6 and Galaxy S6 Edge smartphones, which are made of metal and glass -- and don't have the plastic case that was roundly criticized in the Galaxy S5.
In coming up with design and engineering ideas for its two new devices, Samsung threw out all of its earlier design approaches.
"We called it Project Zero and said, 'Let's start from scratch,'" said Shoneel Kolhatkar, senior director for Samsung product marketing for the U.S., in an interview at Mobile World Congress.
"We wanted a premium product with top-notch materials," he added. Both phones incorporate Gorilla Glass on the front and back and have an aircraft-grade aluminum metal edge. They also support Samsung Pay with NFC and magnetic payment capabilities and have embedded Qi wireless power for the first time.
Samsung heard from customers in focus groups and elsewhere that concern had mushroomed over the earlier plastic case. It wasn't as if the Galaxy S6 designers and engineers put up signs that said "No Plastic!" as they walked into design sessions, but there was a clear direction to stay away from a plastic case.
Ask whether Samsung was obsessed with designing a no-plastic case, Kolhatkar smiled and said, "I won't say so, but we are obsessed with what the customer wants."
Asked if Samsung was obsessed with beating the iPhone, Kolhatkar responded that Samsung always wants "to design a premium product made of top-notch materials." He conceded that Apple and its iPhone have been "good competition," but added that the Galaxy S6 can help Samsung "emerge as a technology and innovation leader with best-in-class design and best-in-class technology."
Ultimately, customers will decide if either the Galaxy S6 or the Galaxy S6 Edge is better than the iPhone 6. There's also the question of whether Apple customers will remain devoted to iOS and whether Android fans will stick with Android's Lollipop operating system -- factors that matter to brand-loyal customers more than hardware design and quality materials.
Still, Samsung could win some iOS converts with the Galaxy S6 and S6 Edge devices, which could become the phone of choice for first-time buyers of high-end smartphones.
While Samsung sells the most smartphones globally of any manufacturer, Apple's iPhone is still the best seller on the planet. There's no question that the iPhone is the phone to beat, and comparisons with the iPhone came up several times during Samsung's Unpacked announcement Sunday.
In one reference to the iPhone 6, Samsung mentioned that the metal in its newest phones is 50% stronger than in the metal in other phones and won't be susceptible to bending, as "some other phones" were -- a clear reference to reports that the iPhone 6 could be fairly easily bent. To that point, Kolhatkar said that the Galaxy S6 and S6 Edge had both been thoroughly tested -- a process that included a "butt test," where one of the devices was placed in a rear pants pocket of a lab dummy and the dummy was repeatedly made to sit, then stand, then sit again to make sure no bending of the phone occurred.
Also at the Unpacked event, Samsung said that the powerful batteries in the new phones charge faster than any in the industry, taking just 10 minutes to get enough charge for four hours of daily use, or half the time of the iPhone 6.
The batteries in both new phones are also built-in for the first time. Samsung, which refused to provide a built-in battery in previous models for a long time, said it waited until it could develop quick-charging capabilities while other manufacturers sacrificed convenience for design.
Such statements comparing the Galaxy devices to the iPhone led Carolina Milanesi, an analyst for Kantar WorldWide, to declare in an interview, "Samsung is so obsessed with Apple... saying 'We need to do this or that.'"
Milanesi said it was better for Samsung to improve the design of its latest flagship phone instead of coming up with a series of company-branded applications, widgets and services. Consumers usually more easily respond to stunning design and materials than to software features, she said.
While Samsung believes wireless power and Samsung Pay will be important differentiators, Milanesi was less certain. "Nobody buys an iPhone because of Apple Pay," she said. "Using Apple Pay is not automatic and, for me, it's not natural over just pulling out a credit card."
Milanesi said it might take a long while for mobile payment systems with NFC or other magnetic methods to gain traction in the U.S. because consumers haven't demanded such capabilities. "People are saying they didn't really want it in the first place," she said.
Kolhatkar disagreed with Milanesi's assessment on the potential for mobile payments in the U.S. "We are very confident there will be a trend toward mobile payments and adoption," he said. While mobile payments haven't taken off with the NFC technology, Samsung believes its secure magnetic technology from LoopPay will ignite wider consumer interest, he said.
Reports that some of the magnetic payments with earlier LoopPay technology had been inconsistent didn't concern him either. Inconsistent performance "is not going to be a problem," Kolhatkar said. Also, Samsung Pay is supported by tokenization cryptography and a secure hardware element used in the Samsung Knox enterprise security product line. There's further security with a touch-type fingerprint scan, which is an improvement over a scrolling fingerprint scan in earlier Galaxy products.
With the bolstered security in Samsung Pay, consumers should feel more confident about using it, he said.
Given that banks and credit card companies are already on board with Samsung Pay, Kolhatkar added, "We're very bullish on it."