By Timothy W. Martin and Tripp Mickle
Samsung Electronics Co.'s newest flagship smartphone owes a lot to scuba diving.
Samsung design chief M.H. Lee wanted to give consumers the weightless sensation of being underwater when they held the Galaxy S8, which hit shelves in April and is the South Korean tech giant's first premium device after last year's costly Galaxy Note 7 recall.
The Galaxy S8 grew longer, slimmer and dropped most of the frame surrounding the display, for a sleek design many in the tech industry contend has bested Apple Inc.'s iPhone -- some would say for the first time.
Ten years after Apple launched the first iPhone, the smartphone war is shifting to how a phone looks and feels. Smartphone innovation has plateaued in the eyes of many consumers, who now see incremental changes instead of game-changing features, like a front-facing camera or a crisper-looking display, that they once lined up for.
"Companies used to design phones to show off their technology," Mr. Lee, a 45-year-old executive, said in an interview, where he wore gold-colored sneakers and a Darth Vader T-shirt. "Now the focus is on designing a product that can be a buddy to the person, inseparable to them," Mr. Lee said.
Samsung, at least for now, is turning the tables on Apple with phone quality, Consumer Reports concluded when it ranked the Galaxy S handset the top smartphone on the market for the second straight year, with design earning praise alongside battery life and camera quality on the latest incarnation, the S8. Bragging rights matter more than ever as each company introduces fresh devices this year and vies for some of the record numbers of smartphone owners due for upgrades.
Samsung has been putting more effort into creating a strong design culture. It has put the spotlight on Mr. Lee, who has the nickname "Midas" in South Korea yet is relatively unknown internationally, and who took over mobile design at Samsung in 2014. In contrast, Apple's Jony Ive continues to enjoy star status in industrial design circles.
Apple declined to comment and didn't make Mr. Ive available for comment.
How a smartphone looks now accounts for about half a consumer's purchase decision, with the assessment formed in roughly one second, according to Charles L. Mauro, president of MauroNewMedia, a product-design research firm that has done consulting work for Apple and Samsung. Mr. Mauro says peer-reviewed research reveals aesthetics matter much more than previously believed, as older surveys pegged looks as influencing only 7% of a phone purchase.
Consumers are upgrading en masse: Global smartphone shipments rose 5.6% for the first three months of 2017 versus the year-earlier period -- representing the first sustained growth in two years, according to market researcher IHS Markit. The uptick comes as a large number of consumers who have held on to their smartphones for two years -- or more -- are looking to upgrade their device.
Samsung says Galaxy S8 sales hit one million units in its home market in half the time it took for the prior year's model, the Galaxy S7, now Samsung's best-selling smartphone.
The S8 is nudging the bar higher as Apple seeks to impress with its 10th anniversary iPhone this fall. For Apple to outdo Samsung on design, analysts said, it would need a new distinguishing feature, like a fingerprint sensor beneath the display rather than a physical home button.
Apple pioneered modern smartphone design in 2007 with the original iPhone, popularizing the concept of the home button and the touch screen. Samsung distinguished itself by introducing a large 5.3-inch screen in 2011 and more recently by removing the horizontal frame around the Galaxy S8's display -- a change analysts expect the new iPhone to adopt later this year.
Some design experts wonder if the Galaxy S8's visual leap says more about Apple and its chief executive, Tim Cook, whose operational skills contrast with the visionary talents of his predecessor, Steve Jobs. "It's not so much that Samsung has gotten better, but Apple has fundamentally changed," said Hugh Dubberly, a former Apple creative director and former member of Samsung's global design advisory board. "The pipeline that Steve [Jobs] started is over."
Apple didn't respond to requests for comment.
Design has been a heated issue between the companies since 2011, when Apple filed suit against Samsung, accusing it of copying the iPhone and committing patent infringement -- and seeking damages representing all of the South Korean firm's smartphone profits at the time. The Supreme Court in December ruled that a lower court should reconsider how much money Samsung owes Apple for alleged patent infringement relating to the iPhone's design.
Mr. Jobs made design central to Apple's identity at its formation in the 1970s, and he reinforced it upon his return to the company in 1997. Apple has given Mr. Ive and his design team a critical voice influencing everything from how loose an Apple Watch fits to how the company's Apple Pencil moves across an iPad.
Samsung, traditionally known for semiconductor engineering and low-cost appliance manufacturing, began prioritizing design in 1996 under Chairman Lee Kun-hee. He believed design would be critical to product success in the 21st century. The company now employs 1,500 designers globally.
"What is unique about Samsung is they tried to institutionalize design," said Youngjin Yoo, an information-systems professor at Case Western Reserve University, in Cleveland, who has consulted with Samsung on design strategy.
Another distinction between the two companies is that Samsung and its affiliates make many components in-house, rather than relying mostly on third-party suppliers, as Apple does.
Mr. Lee said he had two design goals for the Galaxy S8 -- to make the phone slimmer with a better grip, so it was easier to hold, and to extend the screen to the sides by removing the metal frames along the display's edges.
"Before, it wasn't technically possible," Mr. Lee said. But the flexible organic light-emitting diodes, or OLED, displays that Samsung was making enabled his team to develop a phone with a screen that runs right to its outer edges with a slight curve. The result is a 5.8-inch display on the standard Galaxy S8 that is larger than the 5.5-inch iPhone 7 Plus display, but contained in a narrower, smaller device.
"Smartphone design is not just artwork that expresses what you want but a process of making things people around the world can actually use," said Mr. Lee, who recalls how, as a 4-year-old, he drew pictures to tell his parents what he wanted to eat, because he hadn't yet learned to write.