Every decade or so, an opportunity appears. The balance of power shifts, and new platforms take hold. We’re in the midst of one of those shifts right now, as a staid smartphone market makes way for voice assistants and VR platforms. Having missed the chance to be a major smartphone OS power, Samsung wants to take advantage of this latest transition, but its chance may already be slipping away.
In its most recent earnings release, Samsung calls out Bixby, its much-maligned voice assistant, as a future center of growth. But Bixby isn’t described in terms of phones. Samsung says “it will also drive forward new businesses related to AI/IoT by strengthening the ecosystem based on Bixby and building on Samsung’s 5G technology.”
Voice Assistants Aren’t Just Voice Assistants
Right now, many people think of voice assistants as extensions of the voice-dialing and voice-search functions on phones. (Apple has been pushing this narrative because Siri is still highly phone-dependent.) But they’re actually the next generation of consumer user interfaces, designed for an always-connected, 5G world.
When the high data rates and low latencies of 5G take hold, local processing on devices becomes much less important. We’ll be surrounded by “thin,” cloud-based devices that just make a lot of requests to servers. Many will be screenless or keyboardless, making voice interfaces a natural way of dealing with the 5G world. Cloud-powered computing capabilities will produce high-quality voice recognition.
So we think we’re seeing the voice-assistant battle play out right now in 2018, but it’s going to get really interesting in 2020, when 5G really hits.
Samsung is the world’s biggest chipmaker, but it doesn’t control its smartphone destiny. For a decade, it’s been dependent on Google for its OS. Its phone performance has often dragged as a result, because differentiating Samsung features (its “skin”) have sat too heavily on Google’s base layer. And it hasn’t been able to create the sort of cross-Samsung convergence that it’s wanted to do, in part because everything has to be laid on top of not only Android, but Google’s services layer.
Bada, introduced in 2010, and Tizen, created in 2012, were supposed to be Samsung-influenced, industry-wide alternatives to Android. But by 2012, Android already had massive third-party app support, and other manufacturers decided they would rather work with Google (which doesn’t make a large volume of smartphones) than Samsung (a stone-cold hardware competitor).
Bixby is an opportunity for Samsung to grab a software position in the upcoming 5G world, thereby making it so Samsung devices work a little bit better and more smoothly than others do. That motive is why Bixby might not succeed, of course. Too many potential partners are suspicious of Samsung.
There Can Be Only Two
I really want there to be more than two choices in a platform marketplace. But that may not be possible. Desktop PCs settled down to Windows and Mac, servers on Windows and Linux, and smartphones to Android and iOS.
Right now, Google Assistant and Amazon Alexa have established an early lead. Apple seems to have a plan with Siri, which it is executing slowly. Microsoft, being Microsoft, has largely dropped the ball with Cortana for now.
Samsung saw this transition as important enough that it appointed a services guy, Injong Rhee, as its CTO. Rhee pushed Bixby hard; he knows this is a moment when balances of power can shift, and he wants Samsung to have a position in cloud OSes. But Rhee has left Samsung, citing family responsibilities.
Bixby on phones is just a proving ground. It hasn’t really gone anywhere, because it’s stuck on “input 2” behind the Google Assistant. But Samsung sees Bixby as its new OS for yet-unknown 5G devices. The question remains whether it can find sufficient partners so Google and Amazon don’t just overwhelm it by becoming industry standards, or whether it’ll go the way of Tizen.