Author(s): Raghu Gopal
This past weekend, Samsung announced that it would embed its digital assistant based on artificial intelligence (AI) into its upcoming flagship smartphone, the Galaxy S8. This isn't an entirely surprising move given the phone maker's recent acquisition of Viv Labs, a start-up from San Jose, California, that Samsung purchased in October 2016. Viv Labs was founded by some of the same talent that created Siri, which has now become an integral part of Apple's iOS.
This isn't just a matter of creating a market distraction for Samsung while it heals from several high-profile recalls. Rather, this is a move by the company recognising the evolution of the next wave of operating systems. Voice input is becoming a standard usability method and AI, usually with connectivity to the cloud, is becoming a new type of computing platform.
Few companies have the breadth of products that Samsung has, providing it with advantages of scale to establish its AI platform on many product categories. In addition to integrating this platform, rumoured to be called Bixby, into smartphones, we expect Samsung to expand its voice-assistant services into goods such as home appliances, wearable technology devices, television sets and smart home devices. The move will allow Samsung to differentiate its products from rivals. By embedding its own AI engine in devices across households, consumers could become comfortable speaking Samsung's language.
Samsung's AI endeavours put it in competition with Amazon, Apple, Baidu, Google and Microsoft, which are all developing their own voice-based AI services. Although these are not necessarily mutually exclusive, the history of platform competition tells us that there tends to be two or three winners in the end.
The market leaders are breaking in consumers toward natural user interfaces, and although AI services and devices aren't perfect, they're beginning to become truly pragmatic. Amazon has already established a beachhead with its Alexa-powered Echo, and Google has been energetically marketing the Google Assistant feature integral to its Pixel phones. Google's intelligent speaker, called Google Home, places the company in the living room as a listening companion.
This is not Samsung's first move in AI. A few years ago, it had a voice-assistant service known as S Voice that was installed in its smart TVs and could have been brought to other products. However, a consumer backlash against TVs that were always listening led to the feature being dropped. Samsung, and others, will need to overcome this obstacle as it builds AI voice into its products — Amazon hasn't seen any backlash against its Echo smart speaker, perhaps because it's a dedicated voice-assistant product and concerned users will simply not buy one. The equation may be different with other product categories such as smartphones, TVs and washing machines.
Samsung has its work cut out to catch up to the likes of Amazon, Apple, Google and Microsoft. It also has to overcome the tension between using Google's solution, which is potentially baked into the Android operating system used on Samsung's smartphones, and its in-house assistant from Viv Labs. This isn't a new dilemma for Samsung, having grappled with the problem of an in-house solution versus a Google-powered alternative when it comes to smartphones, wearables, TVs and more.
Early demonstrations of Samsung's AI have been impressive, but there have been no hands-on opportunities to use the feature in commercial products. It might have the advantage of intrigue, but its rivals have the advantage of time, which gives them a wealth of information about their users. Google, for example, stands to benefit from the popularity of its portfolio of services and the global dominance of Android.
Samsung's vision and swift implementation of newly acquired assets is impressive. The company is thinking big in its vertical integration but the competitive field is extremely demanding.