Company / division: Samsung
★ Samsung Uses Google Music as Default Option on Galaxy S8 (Apr 21, 2017)
The review embargo on the Samsung Galaxy S8 lifted this morning and so a slew of reviews was published. The consensus appears to be that the hardware is beautiful and generally very good, while the software is mixed at best. Which is about the least surprising sentence anyone ever wrote about a Samsung phone, but is also bad news given the extent to which Samsung emphasized software this time around. On the hardware side, reviewers seem to love the screen, the dimensions of the display versus the overall footprint, and the feel in the hand. The one knock from a hardware perspective is the fingerprint sensor, which bafflingly is high up on the back and right next to the camera, where it’s both hard to reach and easy to miss and smudge the camera lens instead. From a software perspective, the main criticisms revolve around Bixby, which is missing its voice feature in the US and seems redundant and gimmicky, but the other criticism is around face unlock. As I said when it launched, face unlock is a sop to users who miss the fingerprint unlock on the front and want a simple way to get into their phone without typing in a passcode, but Samsung arguably hasn’t done enough to make clear that it’s a pretty insecure way to actually lock a phone. As such, it’s fine for grandma but not for the corporate IT department, and Samsung needs to make that clearer, especially given that iris scanning is also present as an option. This certainly won’t be exactly the debut Samsung wanted, but the positive reception to the hardware will do a lot for it. Also worth noting: Samsung provided a review unit to the Wall Street Journal but not the New York Times, whose reporter Brian Chen has been very critical of Samsung over its customer service among other things.
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.
At this point, I’m pretty sure the only people still worrying about the Note7 and the impact the recall has had on demand for Samsung phones are reporters. All the evidence from consumer surveys right from the start has suggested that (a) no-one’s views on Samsung were changed all that dramatically by the recall, and more importantly (b) those with recent direct experience of Samsung products budged least in their views. In other words, if you’d used lots of Galaxy smartphones and they’d never blown up, you had reasonable confidence the next one you owned wouldn’t either. These new statements from Samsung back that up, and it looks like the phones are doing even better than last year’s, which shouldn’t be surprising because they really do look pretty compelling, at least on paper (reviews should be coming out in the next week or so and that may change demand for the better or worse). Given that sales are mostly going to be coming from existing owners of Galaxy S phones, none of this should surprise anyone. And I know from talking to them that Samsung employees are desperate to put the Note7 behind them, and quite reasonably so at this point.
Samsung sees bounce in Q1 ahead of Galaxy S8 – CNET (Apr 6, 2017)
The first part of this article suggests that the strong Q1 results Samsung is forecasting would be a bounce back from the Note7 debacle, but the reality is that Samsung already saw that bounce back in Q4 2016, which was its best-ever quarter for operating margins and flat revenues year on year despite the hole left by the Note7. This quarter would improve margins still further while also potentially maintaining flat or slightly increased revenues year on year again. What Samsung doesn’t tell us in these preliminary results notices is where the money is coming from, but last quarter semiconductors made a big contribution, and it’s likely that this division is the big hero again this quarter. It’s by far the company’s most profitable division, and although it contributes less revenue than the mobile segment, its contribution has been growing there too. So although the Note7 rebound narrative is attractive, this is really about components not phones, as the phone business continues to be roughly stagnant rather than thriving.
It’s unfortunate that we have to rely on stats from a porn site to measure VR market share, but beggars can’t be choosers. Obviously, there may be reasons why the usage this site sees isn’t representative of the market as a whole, but the numbers here are far from surprising: Gear VR is by far the largest chunk of usage, which absolutely aligns with the numbers we’re seen in terms of devices sold / in use. Google’s Daydream, meanwhile, has a tiny fraction of the market, which is also unsurprising given its relative newness and the limited distribution of headsets and compatible phones. Gear VR has become the de facto standard for Android VR and mobile VR more broadly, and Daydream VR will only do well if essentially every other Android vendor supports it in their handsets and pushes it aggressively to consumers. So far, that hasn’t happened, with predictable results.
We’re talking here about Tizen, Samsung’s alternative operating system which it uses for smartwatches, TVs, and to a lesser extent phones, and some security researchers are claiming there are widespread security vulnerabilities in that software. Some of the characterizations in this article seem like a bit of a stretch – it would be very odd indeed if Samsung had done as little to provide security in Tizen as the researcher quoted suggests. But these allegations are becoming part of a pattern recently in relation to Samsung, between the Wikileaks smart TV story, the more recent (and more serious) story on smart TV hacking through broadcast signals, and now this. It’s particularly problematic for Samsung because it has worked so hard over the last few years to develop Knox, its enterprise security solution, which is best in class in the Android world. It simply can’t afford to get a reputation for poor security when it’s trying to become the de facto standard for Android devices in the enterprise, and needs to address these vulnerabilities – and the broader claims – quickly and definitively.
via The Verge
Google has today announced a patent licensing alliance which is intended to provide cover to member companies using each other’s patents. The idea is that any member can use any other member’s patents without fear of being sued, something that’s actually been quite common between members of the broader ecosystem over the last few years. The alliance has only nine members to start with, about half of which are smaller smartphone brands, but the members do include Samsung, LG, and of course Google itself, as well as Foxconn. Those members alone apparently have 230,000 patents between them which will now be freely available to other members within the context of Android devices. This is a fascinating move, and it’s impressive that Google was able to get Samsung and LG in particular on board without also having some of the other big Android vendors. Of course, none of this will stop these companies from suing those outside the Android ecosystem (or this alliance), but it might help temper some of the animosity that has sometimes characterized competition between Android OEMs.
Whereas the CIA / Wikileaks stories about Samsung smart TVs being hacked were somewhat overblown (they largely affected older TVs and required physical access to sets), this hack is more worrying because it would affect newer TVs and could be delivered remotely. However, for any kind of widespread effect, it would require hacking into a broadcast or IPTV stream, which in itself would be no mean feat, and of course would only work on TVs that happened to be accessing that stream during the time when it was compromised. Still, the broader worry here is, once again, that any device connected to the internet is at least theoretically vulnerable to hacking, and devices such as TVs with less sophisticated security systems than computers and smartphones are often the most vulnerable and hardest to patch.
I actually excluded this DeX solution from my various comments on the Samsung announcements yesterday, not deliberately, but probably because it seemed like the least important thing Samsung announced and I simply forgot about it. These solutions have been around for years, and they’ve never done well, only in part because they’re clunky but mostly because the compelling use cases are pretty hard to find. Anyone who regularly travels almost certainly has a laptop they could plug into a similar setup (or use independently), while anyone who doesn’t would be unlikely to justify the investment in not just this $150 dock but also several hundred dollars’ worth of monitor, keyboard, and mouse too for occasional use. I did spend this morning with Samsung’s enterprise team and saw some impressive demos of virtual Windows desktops from Citrix and VMware running on this solution, and those are slightly more compelling than the Android hybrid this thing runs by default as a desktop experience, but the caveats all still apply. This still feels like a very niche solution which very few people are actually going to find useful.
via The Verge
The Samsung Galaxy S8 voice assistant Bixby can’t recognise British accents – Business Insider (Mar 30, 2017)
This is a great example of something I wrote about on Techpinions this week, which is that here in the US we often assume technologies available to us are ubiquitous globally, but that’s actually rarely the case. In this case, it’s the Bixby assistant / interface that ships with the Samsung Galaxy S8 which not only won’t work in languages other than English and Korean but won’t offer voice services at all in the UK, where of course accents are different. (Another tidbit in this piece is that it won’t actually work in US English until May). Building voice interfaces is tough to begin with, but localizing them for different accents and languages is another massive layer of work, often made harder by the fact that voice recognition technologies are trained on single languages like US English.
via Business Insider
This is an interesting little announcement – it’s short on details, but it appears Microsoft will be selling a version of the Galaxy S8 with more of its apps pre-installed. The big downside is that this seems to be a highly manual process and the devices are only available at full price from Microsoft rather than through carrier stores and installment plans, so that’s going to dramatically limit the addressable market. But it’s interesting to see Microsoft deepening its investment in Android at a time when its own mobile devices continue to be all but irrelevant.
A few weeks back, T-Mobile announced it was rolling out LTE-U on its network, but it made little difference because no-one had a device that could take advantage of it. As I said then, phones with Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 835 chip were likely to be among the first to support the functionality, and today T-Mobile confirmed that the Samsung Galaxy S8 will be the first device. It also touted several other related LTE technologies which will make the phone operate faster on its networks than competitors’. It still feels like an exaggeration to call it a gigabit-class smartphone though, as T-Mobile does in this press release – I very much doubt anyone is going to see sustained gigabit speeds in real-world usage.
Samsung Updates Gear VR and Gear 360 Camera (Mar 29, 2017)
Two other smaller announcements from Samsung today on top of its phone and smart home announcements concern its VR and 360 degree camera accessories, both of which got an update today. The Gear VR is easily the VR headset with the biggest base today, thanks largely to its aggressive pricing and bundling by Samsung in combination with its smartphones. That doesn’t mean it’s the best experience out there, and in fact it’s been a somewhat frustrating one because the controller was an awkward trackpad on the side of the headset. But the new version solves that with what looks like a really good separate hand-held controller, along with other improvements. This is the same approach as the Google Daydream View takes, and it works very well in that device, so this should make the Gear VR better too. The Gear 360 debuted last year, but was pretty limited, being designed more for stationary use at, say, a party rather than as an action camera for use on the go. The new version has 4K video and a new design better suited for on-the-go use. As with the other announcements, we’ll have to wait until reviews come out to know whether they’ll deliver on the promise (and I’ll be testing the Gear 360 I picked up at the event today shortly), but on paper these should be decent upgrades on their predecessors.
I’ll cover the other accessories announcements from Samsung in a separate item, but this one feels worth calling out by itself, because it’s really the first time Samsung has created any meaningful connection between its smartphones and the rest of its portfolio of appliances and smart home devices and therefore created a proper ecosystem. As with the new phones, we’ll have to see how this hub and associated apps perform in practice, but on paper this looks like a good combination of hardware and software for setting up and managing a Samsung-owned ecosystem of devices, incorporating both Samsung-branded appliances and the SmartThings home automation gear it also owns. The separateness of these parts of Samsung’s portfolio in the past has been baffling, because its smartphone base has been a big potential lever for moving SmartThings forward and it hasn’t used it. This now puts Samsung into more direct contention with some of the other ecosystems in this space, like Apple’s HomeKit, Alphabet’s Nest and Google Home, and Amazon’s Echo. And it’s another sign that other big companies are deepening their in-home infrastructure even as Apple appears to be backing away from its WiFi routers, at least for now. I suspect we’ll see something new from Apple in this space eventually, but for now its withdrawal from this market feels risky as routers and associated devices are going to be important components in a smart home ecosystem.
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.
Another crazy wrinkle in the ongoing set of regulatory and legal actions against Qualcomm over anticompetitive practices: the Korean regulator responsible for the fine against Qualcomm last year says that one of the conditions of the contract between the companies was that Samsung would not be allowed to sell its own Exynos chips to any other vendors. What’s particularly crazy here is that Samsung is both Qualcomm’s biggest customer for chips and a contract manufacturer of those chips, so the two are inextricably intertwined here but are still going through this painful process. Samsung isn’t suing Qualcomm as Apple is, but it’s still likely cooperating with the authorities who are looking into its dealings in various markets. Just another sign of how far relationships between Qualcomm and some of its biggest customers have got, that they’re willing to start airing their grievances despite their close ties.
This feels like a huge misstep, especially announced the week of the S8 launch, which could otherwise have been the moment Samsung finally put the Note 7 debacle behind it. While the desire to minimize the environmental impact is admirable, and Samsung would no doubt benefit financially from refurbishing the phones, it would have been better off simply doing what it originally said it would and abandoning the line entirely and merely recouping parts. Another story that both keeps the Note7 in the news and raises the prospect of people actually buying them again (even if under a different name) just seems like a terrible tradeoff to make for those benefits. Ironically, this was the week when Samsung also finally issued a software update which will kill the remaining devices still in use in the US, yet another milestone in moving past this whole mess.
via The Verge