Bixby is Samsung's answer to Siri on the iPhone and the Google Assistant in the Pixel and G6 phones and Google’s Home device.
Samsung's Galaxy S8 deserves its early kudos for smarts mainly in the SoC and some head scratches over its integrated services, or lack thereof.
Personally I am amazed how much more the handset packs into a 5.86in x 2.68in x 0.31in, 5.36oz package, very close to that of the S7. A Category 16 LTE modem, 802.11ac Wi-Fi with 1024-QAM and Bluetooth 5.0 all provide zippier performance to compensate for the modest CPU/GPU improvements.
The design takes some dings from reviewers for failing to adopt the dual-camera strategy of Apple’s iPhone 7. The S8 apparently uses the same rear camera as the S7, but it does upgrade the front camera to an 8MP f1.7 lens and adds more professional-quality options along the lines of Google’s Pixel phones.
The camera and display support new iris and face recognition features, though some reviews already note the face recognition can be spoofed with pictures. They add to a multilayered security offering based on an ARM’s hardware-root-of-trust, widely used in handsets for years. I’d expect similar features in the iPhone 8.
Figure 1: Earbuds are among hundreds of items that require detailed attention. (Source: Samsung)
Unfortunately, Samsung’s S8 is playing catch-up in one area where it could really differentiate. Its new Bixby service is its answer to Siri on the iPhone and the Google Assistant in the Pixel and G6 phones and Google’s Home device.
I suspect Bixby is single name for a basket of loosely related features. The upside is in addition to voice it supports text or touch interactions and is well tied into the camera. For example, you can take a picture to recognise a place, a face, an object or even translate a block of text.
Samsung said at launch, “Bixby voice controls will be integrated into some…native apps, and will understand instructions in U.S. English, U.S. Spanish, Korean and Chinese.”
What Samsung needs is an integrated consumer machine-learning cloud service that’s in a wide variety of Samsung phones, TVs and other consumer gear as well as third-party systems and apps. Unfortunately, Apple and Google have deeper ties to the developer community, and Amazon’s Alexa has a huge time-to–market advantage over all of them.
Amazon has sold some 15 million Alexa units by some counts. It has gained support from a wide swath of developer and fulfilment partners as well as OEMs and chip partners.
Interestingly, Samsung bills its Bixby service as separate from what it calls Samsung Connect, a way to control with the smartphone networked devices in the home. These two services should be part of an integrated offering that spans all Samsung smart home products.
Creating such a comprehensive service would be a huge task. I suspect given the number of Android and Apple TV systems in the market, it’s a job Google and Apple are working on, too. It may be the final battleground where big mobile and consumer IoT vendors slug it out over the next few years.
It must be enormously hard to pull it all together when you are building everything from 10nm SoCs to cloud services. Samsung is not the only giant lumbering toward this reality.
For example, this year LG launched at MWC its G6 smartphone as the first phone not made by Google to use the Google Assistant. It announced at CES its home appliance division will make products using the competing Amazon Alexa service.
Clearly, it takes time to pull together an integrated offering spanning such big divisions. While LG and Samsung have deep chip and display experience and broad consumer product lines they solely lack the cloud prowess of Google and Apple.
Following the mobile money
China’s Huawei, a rival to Cisco and Ericsson in networking, wants a seat with the big boys in handsets. It shipped a stunning 139 million phones last year, up 29% in a flat global smartphone market, according to a Reuters report that made clear it wasn’t enough.
Net profit edged up just 0.4% to ₹36,037.26 crore ($5.3 billion), the report said, blaming overspending on its handset ambitions. Corporate revenue rose 32%, but China handset makers OPPO and Vivo grabbed market share from Huawei’s Honor phones.
"Only revenue growth and no profit growth will not be tolerated," Huawei Chief Executive Eric Xu said in the* Reuters* report.
“Oppo and Vivo really turned on the juice at home, costing Huawei 190bp of local market share in H2 2016,” said analyst Richard Windsor of Edison Investment Research in a report. “We think that the [Huawei] handset business lost money as it slashed prices and ramped up spending to gain market share,” he said.
Even though it is the second largest Android handset maker in the world, Huawei only ekes out at best 2-4% profit margins, Windsor estimates. By contrast, Samsung may earn 10-12% profits based on significantly higher volume sales, he said.
Personally, I was impressed when I stumbled into a Huawei press conference at MWC in 2012 to hear the company launch new handsets with their own SoCs-I even got to speak with the SoC designer. Indeed, Huawei is no silicon slouch. Its HiSilicon division is by far China’s largest fabless chip designer.
“We think that Huawei is also working on differentiating its [handsets] through software and services…However, this is easier said than done and we think that Huawei has a lot of work to do before it will be in this position,” Windsor added, suggesting Huawei find a way to collaborate with China’s web giants Baidu or Tencent.
Indeed, Samsung and Huawei show mobile has become a tough game of project management on a vast scale for big players and teams of teams.