Narrative: Samsung is Bad at Services
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Narrative: Samsung is Bad at Services (Jan 28, 2017)
Written: January 28, 2017
Samsung is the biggest Android smartphone vendor by far, and it’s managed to achieve that position without being particularly good at adding value through services – its main advantages have been scale and marketing muscle, as well as decent (and recently much improved) industrial design. But it has repeatedly tried and failed to make its proprietary services on its smartphones meaningful positive differentiators rather than sub-par alternatives to the ones that ship with Android.
That’s not to say that Samsung hasn’t tried with services, over and over again. It’s put its own voice assistant, video services, music services, and much more besides onto smartphones, but they’ve either fallen short or eventually been killed off entirely (see especially its “Milk”-branded music and video services). Samsung simply doesn’t seem to have the corporate culture necessary to do really well in software or services above and beyond the core Android experience. It’s also been prone to gimmicky add-ons that make for interesting keynote demos but aren’t useful in real life. In the last couple of years, it seems to have toned back some of these customizations and its ugly UI overlays as well, partly in response to pressure from Google.
However, it doesn’t seem to have given up entirely – it recently acquired Viv, a voice assistant made by some of the original creators of Siri, and intends to make an integrated version a standout feature in its 2017 flagship devices. Whether it’s able to do this effectively is a big question mark – it won’t have had much time to do that integration, and shipping a half-baked voice assistant is worse than no assistant at all, especially as Google’s own Assistant is likely to make an appearance on more competing Android smartphones later this year.
Short of making one or more big acquisitions in the services space to bring in the necessary skills and expertise, Samsung is likely destined to keep falling short on services. As Android competition intensifies, and especially as Google pushes further into the space with both its own first party Pixel hardware and potentially a renewed push in mature markets around Android One, that’s going to become an increasingly important disadvantage for Samsung, and one that it needs to take seriously.
When the Samsung Galaxy S8 devices were preparing to launch, some were caught off guard by the fact that the English language version of its Bixby voice interface wouldn’t be available when it went on sale. Later, Bixby was released as a limited public beta in the US, and today it’s going to be available as an update to all US owners of the devices, roughly three months after the devices went on sale. At launch, Samsung faced a conundrum: ship a version that wasn’t ready and risk people’s first experiences with Bixby putting them off for life, or delay one of the headline features of the phone for several months, and in the end it plumped for the latter. That was smart, and there seems to have been little backlash about the delay from users (perhaps suggesting they mostly don’t care about it). Reviews based on the early beta release suggested there were some big issues and bugs, but the Journal piece linked here is more positive about it. The big issue remains Samsung’s framing of Bixby as an interface rather than an assistant, after years of smartphone users being trained to see the two as essentially synonymous. But Bixby is definitely not a broad assistant: it can’t answer questions about the world (or in many cases your slice of it), but is very good at controlling device functions and settings, at least within Samsung’s own apps. My brief testing suggests Bixby still pretty glitchy, even in the setup process. The list of third party apps offering Bixby integration hasn’t got much longer since my testing of the device at Samsung’s launch event, and that will be another key challenge here: an assistant that only works for some apps but not others ends up not being very assistive: consistency is the key, something that other assistants have demonstrated through their inconsistency too. If users do adopt Bixby for the things it can do, it’s likely they’ll do so alongside the Google Assistant, which can handle most of the rest, but I could also see many users giving up on Bixby and using just Google’s tool as the one voice interface most likely to help them get things done on their phone. Relatedly, there are reports today that Samsung won’t in fact be making a Bixby voice speaker, something it was reported to be working on earlier, and which I had said made little sense in the context of Bixby as an interface rather than an assistant.
Samsung Reportedly Working on Bixby-Powered Home Speaker (Jul 5, 2017)
Samsung’s Bixby Further Delayed in US to End of June (May 31, 2017)
★ Samsung Uses Google Music as Default Option on Galaxy S8 (Apr 21, 2017)
This actually isn’t news, at least if you paid attention a couple of weeks ago when Business Insider UK reported (and I noted) that Korean would be the launch language for Bixby, and that American English would follow in May, with British English later in the year. However, it appears that Samsung provided a somewhat different steer to US press, telling them that the assistant would be available at launch on April 21st. News of the later US launch is now filtering out through US reps too, however, and will be received as bad news by those who pre-ordered the phone (apparently in large numbers) ahead of reviews and the release of this news. Given that Bixby is at least on paper one of the headline features, at least some of those early buyers will be disappointed, though the screen is another big selling point and that should perform as advertised with the caveats I mentioned in my first comment on the S8 and in the podcast episode I did on the Samsung announcements. Releasing Bixby late is better than releasing a buggy version not ready for launch, but the delay had better not be too long, nor the version it does release too unpolished. Both are risks at this point.
Samsung Debuts Galaxy S8 and S8+ (Mar 29, 2017)
Samsung today announced its next-generation flagship smartphones, the Galaxy S8 and S8+, at an event in New York, which I was able to attend in person. I’ll post separate comments on some of the other announcements made today. The phones look really solid, with a great new design that quite dramatically changes the relationship between screen size and device size, in much the same way as Apple is expected to do later this year. The new design is much more comfortable to hold than last year’s fairly angled efforts, but it has two tradeoffs: the fingerprint sensor is now on the back, and the aspect ratio is very long and thin, which may cause compatibility issues with apps and will mean letterboxing with videos. There are a few software features worth noting too: the new assistant Bixby, which combines voice control with some clever camera recognition tricks and proactive notifications, and broader application of Samsung Pay and Pass (the latter uses biometrics to log the user in to websites and apps). While the hardware is clearly impressive at first glance, we’ll have to wait until reviewers have spent some time with the software and services to know whether it’s as good as advertised – this has been an area of weakness for Samsung in the past, so there’s a steep hill to climb here. The other thing worth noting is that Samsung is pricing these devices around $100 higher than all its previous entrants in this line, which puts them at a competitive disadvantage relative to other flagships, and may offset the sales benefits it might have otherwise achieved from what looks like a strong effort here. All this should finally help move the Samsung news cycle beyond the Note7 and into a more positive narrative for a while.