Samsung is holding its annual Developer Conference this week in San Francisco. At the day one keynote on Wednesday, it pushed a vision centered on “Connected Thinking” as its major theme for not only the conference but its strategy in relation to its software and services in the coming year. That was reflected in a range of moves designed to bring what have been disparate parts of Samsung together, but it’s apparent that this will be a tall order.
A Single Cloud Platform and Bixby as Connective Tissue
Samsung’s major announcements focused on three key topics:
- Consolidating Samsung’s disparate Internet of Things cloud offerings
- Iterating on Bixby, by improving the technology, extending it to new devices, and opening it up more
- Going all-in with Google on AR through ARCore support on all of this year’s flagship phones.
The Internet of Things moves are focused mostly on using the SmartThings brand (now without Samsung as an umbrella brand) as the consumer lead, while consolidating three separate cloud IoT platforms into one, also now tagged with the SmartThings brand. ARTIK survives as a separate IoT brand, but now focused mainly on modules, while its cloud platform along with the Samsung Connect Cloud announced earlier this year will be folded into the SmartThings Cloud.
The way I see this is that the SmartThings Cloud will be the invisible connective tissue on the back end, while Bixby 2.0 eventually becomes the visible connective tissue in the front end as part of a much more coherent and connected vision for Samsung’s range of devices. Samsung executives pointed out during the keynote that it has arguably the largest number and range of devices in use of any company in the world, but the reality is that it’s always been a pretty disparate range of devices, with only fairly superficial integration between them. A big reason for that is Samsung’s operational structure, which has separate CEOs for each product-centric business unit.
The vision Samsung is pushing now is one where a variety of services on these devices will all be powered by the same cloud back-end, and Bixby will become a cloud-based voice interface which works on more and more of them over time. Bixby 2.0 will shift its personalization and training from the device to the cloud, and will therefore start to build profiles of individual users which can be exposed on a variety of devices, including shared devices like TVs and fridges. In addition to its own devices, it’s going to try to extend Bixby support to a variety of third party devices through modules and dongles as part of what it called Project Ambience, which will Bixby-enable existing home devices, both smart and dumb ones, and connect them to each other.
Significant Challenges Lie Ahead
What’s interesting here is that, even though Samsung controls the operating systems on several of its devices, because it doesn’t control by far the biggest – Android on its smartphones – it is instead building the connective layer between its various devices at the interface level. That means pushing Bixby to become far more than it’s been so far, acting not only as a way to perform tasks previously done through touch on a phone, but increasingly allowing for integration with other Samsung devices like TVs and control of smart home gear through SmartThings integrations.
In reality, though, voice can’t be the only interface and therefore can’t be the only connective layer between these various devices – in time, the integration therefore either needs to grow beyond Bixby, or Bixby itself needs to evolve to the point where it’s more than just a voice interface. In the meantime, the SmartThings brand, now decoupled from the Samsung brand to foster a sense of openness, will nonetheless become the brand for Samsung’s own connected home ecosystem too (replacing Samsung Connect), which may cause some customer confusion.
But those aren’t the only barriers to making this vision work: Samsung needs to overcome both internal and external hurdles if it’s to be successful in creating a truly connected ecosystem. The biggest internal barriers continue to be structural – hearing Samsung executives talk about this week’s announcements both on stage and one-on-one, the language is still far more that of separate companies “partnering” rather than a single team working together. The integration announced this week represents progress, but there’s a long way still go go and huge cultural barriers to overcome.
Externally, Samsung needs to convince developers and hardware partners that Bixby is ready for use as a voice platform beyond its smartphones, at a time when it’s got big shortcomings even there. Deeper integration of the Viv technology will certainly help to improve its functionality, as will opening up version two earlier to developers so that the integration can be deeper when it launches to consumers. But the leap Samsung is contemplating here is a huge one, one which other platforms have approached much more gradually and incrementally than Samsung is proposing to do. Samsung would arguably be better served by tackling either third party integration or cross-device support first and then pursuing the other second, rather than trying to do it all at once. The current approach risks over-promising and under-delivering.
The last big challenge is one of adoption – unlike earlier voice assistants, Samsung can’t simply add Bixby to existing hardware, because little of it was designed with voice interfaces in mind. What that means is that it can only grow the Bixby base to the extent that it can grow the base of devices which offer it. In categories like TVs and fridges, that means waiting until next year to even start selling them, and with long refresh cycles, it’ll take many years before penetration is meaningful. Even in smartphones, where Samsung has an installed base of hundreds of millions, it has just 10 million users of Bixby, and we don’t even know how many of those use it daily or weekly. Even if the new SmartThings and Bixby ecosystems work exactly as intended, it will be quite some time before any significant number of consumers actually get to benefit from them.