A couple of weeks ago, my six-year-old Samsung TV died and I decided to invest in a 2018 model with Bixby. On my Galaxy Phone, I have found Samsung’s Bixby to be a good voice UI but not a good all-around assistant.
Setting up the TV was a walk in the park, once I signed into the SmartThings app on my phone the app saw the TV, set up my Wi-Fi and walked me through settings. In a few clicks my Xfinity X1, my Xbox and my Apple TV were all connected and set up. Bixby would happily change input, pull up an app and get me the channel I wanted. Right now the experience is like Siri on Apple TV, you need to press the button on the remote, but this could change if Samsung starts bringing to market soundbars that are Bixby enabled, for instance.
To me, that is a glimpse of the smartness Bixby could deliver going forward. It is a subset of what an Alexa or Google Assistant would do, but there is value in it for a user. Think about that ecosystem of devices growing from TV plus phone to the fridge or your cleaning robot and all the smart devices in your home.
The Two Sides of the AI Battle
I am sure I am stating the obvious when I say that users will expect their future devices and experiences from services and apps to get smarter. Intelligence will have to permeate everything we touch where context and understanding of us users will deliver a much more personal, customized and therefore intelligent experience.
This more intelligent experience will not have to be limited to exchanges with our assistant even if the assistant might be the best showcase of such intelligence.
There are two sides to this new battle: ecosystem owners and hardware vendors. For the ecosystem owners like Apple, Amazon, Google, it is quite straightforward. They are building AI and Machine Learning (ML) capabilities and a digital assistant. They can add those to their own devices as a hardware differentiator or they can build an assistant that they make available for integration in as many devices as possible so that their services can get smarter and be the differentiator for their ecosystem.
On the hardware maker side of the equation, things are a little more complicated. We have already seen hardware vendors adopt different approaches when it comes to integrating AI into their products. Some vendors are embracing what is available, some are embracing Alexa or Google Assistant but trying to differentiate on top, and others are building something they can control.
Watching how hardware vendors approach AI says a lot about their aspirations to build an ecosystem for the future. When it comes to Samsung, it is clear that they do not want to be cornered into “just” making hardware and they want to control what AI will enable on top of the current platforms.
Why Embracing Google is not an Option for Samsung
As Samsung’s managers started to talk about the next version of Bixby last week, I have read some commentary suggesting that Samsung should just give up and embrace Google Assistant throughout their devices. I find such a suggestion hard to stand by in a world where Apple is growing its services layer, Sony is abandoning hardware to focus on content and services and Qualcomm’s CEO is warning that 5G will open the floodgates to Chinese players.
I know this is not a fashionable take on things, but I am used to that. I was one of the few people who always said that Nokia was right in not embracing Android as doing so would have killed Nokia, just more slowly and painfully.
The situation Samsung is in today is actually not very different from a market dynamic perspective than what Nokia faced back in 2014.
Nokia was the market leader when management understood the next phase of mobile phones was about services and apps. That led Nokia on an acquisition-spree in all areas that they thought would be critical going forward:
- Maps: gate5 and Navteq
- Music: Loudeye
- Advertising: Enpocket
- OS: Symbian
Nokia had the right vision, but as it was often the case lacked execution. While they were busy consolidating all those assets into OVI, they took their eyes off the hardware, and Apple and Android blindsided them. Embracing Android at that point would have meant wasting all those investments as well as being pushed to differentiate only by hardware and price. This eventually would have put Nokia where Motorola, HTC, LG found themselves: in a no margin business with the Chinese vendors making advances and grabbing share.
If Samsung embraced Google Assistant today, they would also let some of their acquired assets go to waste from SmartThings to Viv, to Harman. And while throwing more money to a problem will results at times in losing even bigger cash, as Samsung figured out when they pulled the plug on Milk Music, I do think there is scope for Samsung to capitalize on Bixby.
Intelligence means different things to different people. There are Samsung’s users that are happy to use Google Assistant and embrace Google’s services they prefer Samsung’s hardware. Those users are likely less loyal and less embedded in the Samsung ecosystem. But some users who have multiple Samsung’s devices will benefit from an assistant that could make that cross-device experience better for them.
There is a lot of information that Samsung could gather about me in the home through Bixby. Valuable information that might allow Samsung to build routines, control my home and make Bixby the trusted assistant when it comes to home automation and entertainment.
If you share my belief that users will likely have more than one assistant they turn to for their every need, Bixby could find its rightful role in the mix. That said if Samsung is interested in fully compete with Alexa and Google Assistant they better step up their game starting with articulating a clear vision of what their AI and assistant strategy is.