Samsung’s events always get a lot of attention but the scrutiny around the launch of the Galaxy S8 is somewhat unprecedented — the same can be said about the product leaks. We would do the S8 a disservice, however, if we thought that such a level of attention is because it is the first phone released after the recall of the Note 7. Of course this matters but the Galaxy S family has always had a much bigger impact on overall Samsung’s sales. This means that, as well as the Note 7 could have done, there would have still been pressure on the S8 to be a big hit. To give some perspective, the Note family represents only around 12% of all Samsung phones currently in use around the world.
Similar to Apple, the pressure comes from delivering a product able to excite current Samsung owners as well as convert users of competitive brands. The S8 also hits the market a few months before the 10th anniversary iPhone is released and market watchers will be looking to see if Samsung has done enough to stay ahead of Apple. This is, of course, despite not having any concrete insight on what the next iPhone has to offer.
The Galaxy S8’s lack of bezel, or what Samsung calls infinity screen, is definitively an attention grabber. It is when you hold the S8+ in your hand and compare it to the iPhone 7 Plus, however, that you realize how much screen real estate you get with a narrower form factor. It makes for an easier one hand use. I see this as the biggest selling point of the device, both for upgraders and churners.
The rest of the hardware improvements, from better front camera to more a powerful processor, to Nougat are nice improvements but might have not been enough to get a Galaxy S7 user to upgrade. Had Samsung not brought to market the Galaxy S7 Edge last year, the impact of the S8 would have been even stronger. Think about the current iPhone and the reaction users will have if the current bezel disappears on the next model to leave room for more screen. The S8 feels like an evolution of the Edge. It’s in no way a bad thing, it just means the wow effect is a little muted.
Bixby only Playing a Supporting Role for Now
Samsung is very aware of how much is at stake with personal assistants and AI. It also understands there is no way around being compared to what consumers have already experienced with Alexa, Siri, Cortana, or Google Assistant. Setting expectations for the Bixby reveal was crucial. Samsung explained, through blogs and interviews with press, that what we see of Bixby in the Galaxy S8 family is the foundation of something bigger. For now, Bixby seems to be aimed at simplifying a user’s life by allowing him/her to cut steps in getting something done — turning on flight mode or recognizing a book through the camera and ordering it on Amazon.
Bixby is not really an assistant, not yet. Samsung has been very careful not to call it an assistant and presenters at the launch referred to it as an intelligent interface. I see Bixby as an AI engine focused on a somewhat limited range of functionalities that happens to have a voice. Not calling it an assistant is important as it helps consumers not to make direct comparisons and ultimately avoids disappointment.
Since the first information on Bixby was leaked, I have been trying to explain why Samsung decided to come out with it now rather than waiting until after the Viv acquisition is done. Two main reasons. Samsung wanted to show it can develop in house, not just acquire AI. Culturally, this is important, especially now when Samsung is focusing on reassuring users the Note 7 issues will not hinder its innovation. Politically, it might also help to have a vision and establish a starting point before the Viv team comes on board.
From a consumer perspective, coming out with Bixby now is low risk. Consumers are certainly far from picking their phones based on what assistant comes with them. Starting with a focused set of capabilities could actually get consumers to use Bixby and be satisfied with the experience which would potentially help with future adoption of Viv.
The biggest question I have is what will happen to Bixby when Viv arrives? Will Bixby step aside for Viv? Will it take on Viv’s voice and brains? Will it coexist by narrowing its focus empowering Samsung to deliver a cleaner user interface, not just for its phones but across its devices including TV, wearables, and other connected devices? Fortunately for Samsung, I doubt these questions will keep any Galaxy S8 potential buyer awake at night.
Not Just about Hardware Anymore
Since D.J. Koh took the reins of the mobile business, we have seen a consistent shift to deliver products that go well beyond hardware. Samsung has been focusing on software, especially in enterprise with Knox growing to be a full enterprise platform. The newly announced Samsung DeX is a very good example of how hardware becomes a solution to enhance a user’s experience and extend the life of another product, in this case the Galaxy S8/S8+. Being able to dock your phone in a highly portable cradle that you can plug into a monitor at your desk or a tv screen in your hotel room could transform productivity on the go. Similar solutions have been tried in the past but DeX is coming at the perfect time. Android apps are finally able to better scale on a larger screen and Microsoft Office is also optimised. Mobile productivity delivered securely, with limited overhead hardware cost and management, is certainly attractive. The big question is whether IT managers will justify the upgrade to a Samsung S8/S8+.
Samsung’s ecosystem play is getting stronger, both out of need and opportunity. Even the balancing act with Google seems to be less a concern – despite the stage shout-out – as Samsung expands to strategic partnerships such as with Microsoft with DeX or Amazon with the Bixby camera functionality.
Samsung’s opportunity to own consumers’ home is quite unique and I expect Samsung to continue to invest in it with products like the Samsung Connect Home mesh wifi router that also functions as a SmartThings hub. Whether or not consumers are ready to fully invest in the brand remains to be seen. Starting to build easy connections such as Galaxy S8+Gear VR+Gear 360 for play and products such as DeX for work get the ball rolling. Creating connections to home, fitness, and health might take longer and require more resources but I doubt this will be a deterrent for Samsung.