Samsung's real Galaxy S8 challenge

Forget how Samsung's upcoming smartphone looks or what's inside. The biggest test has little to do with the device itself.

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Credit: Dino Giordano

Shh...listen. Can you hear it? Ah, yes -- there it is: the familiar whooshing sound of breathless rumors and forceful leakage (seriously, shouldn't we get a doctor to look at that?). Funny how that always seems to fill the air this time of year, isn't it?

As usual, Samsung's latest Galaxy S phone is the primary subject of the mid-winter whooshing. But this year, the real question about the company's upcoming flagship isn't how the device will look or what size/speed/girth [insert random piece of hardware here] it might possess.

Sure, those measurements might be what you're hearing about in the internet's most echo-filled chambers. But for those of us focused on the big picture, they're not the most interesting or pressing piece of the puzzle.

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The real question to consider in 2017 is whether Samsung can manage to overcome its explosive new brand problem -- you know, the whole "Holy hell, Harry, our phones might catch fire!" thing. And while the infamous flaming phone was actually the Galaxy Note 7, not the Galaxy S7, that's precisely the point: For most normal people, these devices are all one and the same.

It's something I've been thinking about ever since the Note 7 fire fiasco first, um, sparked headlines. And it doesn't take much squinting to see the evidence.

The earliest signs of the phenomenon caught my eye back in October, when "Saturday Night Live" made a casual quip about Samsung's ill-fated phone. I couldn't help but notice that the show didn't refer to the device as the "Note 7" or even the "Note"; instead, it simply called the phone the "Samsung Galaxy 7." And no one blinked an eye.

Suffice it to say, that got me listening. And sure enough, time and time again, late-night talk shows joked about the exploding Samsung phone without ever specifying (or correctly specifying) the actual model. Forget the fact that Samsung's brand was becoming a too-good-to-pass-up punchline; the bigger issue was the fact that much of the public didn't even know the difference between Samsung's product lines and thus started to see them all as being fatally flawed.

The trend wasn't limited to comedy programs, either: Scan through the 7 zillion reports of airport announcements regarding the Note 7's flight ban, and you'll find it's pretty common to see the prohibited phone being referred to as the "Samsung Galaxy 7" or even just vaguely the "Samsung Galaxy." (I've also seen plenty of reports of airport employees declaring the "Samsung Note S7" or even the "Galaxy S7" as the safety hazard, neither of which bodes much better for Samsung.)

Now, could some of these reports be the result of random people mishearing or misremembering what was actually said? Of course. But that just drives home the broader point: that, to many non-tech-obsessed consumers, a Galaxy phone is a Galaxy phone. A Samsung is a Samsung. And in Samsung's current PR nightmare, that makes an already impossible-seeming situation even more daunting.

However much Samsung's image might have suffered as a result of its Note 7 meltdown and the public-awareness campaign that followed, the fact that the company's various product lines are indistinguishable in the eyes of many is only going to make it worse -- because no matter how impressive the Galaxy S8 may appear, tons of typical phone-buyers will see it only as "that phone that caught fire a few months ago" (or maybe "a rushed-out new model of that phone," which might actually be worse). Factor in the inevitable jokes that'll fly through the air every time the latest Galaxy comes up for discussion, and Samsung's got a seriously volatile scenario on its hands.

At this point, the company's practically playing with fire. And if it manages to emerge with only minimal damage from the burns -- well, that'll be quite the feat.

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