Company / division: Samsung
Samsung today announced its preliminary results for Q3, but also announced that its CEO, Oh-Hyun Kwon, will step down in March 2018. The preliminary results are very much in keeping with results for the last several quarters, with record revenues and profits for any quarter, likely again driven by very strong memory sales and higher memory prices, though the smartphone business also likely did well again. Samsung’s management structure is a little different from most western tech companies: it technically has three CEOs, who each run a big chunk of the business, with Kwon overseeing the Device Solutions segment while also being chairman of the board of directors and therefore the closest thing to an overall CEO the company has. That Device Solutions business, interestingly, is the home of memory and other component products at Samsung, which have been the source of its great financial strength, so Kwon’s resignation certainly isn’t a response to poor performance. Rather, it seems likely to be a response to the broader scandals that have engulfed the Samsung group of companies, including Jae-Yong Lee, grandson of the company’s founder, who is currently in jail (and was also technically a vice chairman at Samsung Electronics). His resignation later certainly makes it sound like he is resigning as a matter of honor and to allow the company to move on under fresh leadership, rather than an indication that he’s tainted at all by association with the scandals.
I haven’t seen an official announcement around this, but Windows Central reports that Microsoft has quietly added support for four smart home vendors – Nest, SmartThings, Hue, Wink, and Insteon – to its Cortana virtual assistant. On the one hand, this is good timing with the Harmon Kardon speaker apparently getting ready for launch, but on the other it’s odd given the recent voice assistant partnership between Microsoft and Amazon, a big selling point of which was being able to control smart home gear through Alexa. In fairness, the latter still has much broader support for smart home ecosystems than Cortana, but Microsoft’s assistant now talks to several of the largest, and these plans must have been in the works for months now, certainly before the Alexa partnership was announced. At any rate, it’s going to be much simpler to control these devices directly through Cortana than through the awkward two-step process the Alexa partnership would require, and this is a good addition ahead of the launch of Cortana-based speakers.
via Windows Central
A listing for Harman Kardon’s Cortana-powered speaker, which has been teased for nearly a year by Microsoft and its partner, has shown up on the Microsoft online store, priced at $200 and listed as going on sale on October 22nd. The marketing materials emphasize quality audio, with 360° sound, smart home control, and the ability to make hands-free calls using Skype, though that feature will cost money after an initial 6-month trial of Skype’s outbound calling feature. At $200, the cost is the same as the speaker Sonos announced yesterday, but since neither has been formally reviewed yet we can’t know how the audio quality compares, while Sonos differentiates in a big way by being part of a multi-room system. The price point, though, is indicative of the challenges of competing in this market if you can’t monetize in ways other than through the hardware itself, something that certainly applies to both Harman and Sonos. Amazon, on the other hand, and to a lesser extent Google, can afford to sell devices at or below cost because their ecosystems will benefit in other ways and through other revenue streams such as e-commerce or advertising. HP also has a Cortana speaker coming out soon, and I wouldn’t be surprised if that was priced similarly high.
via The Verge
Samsung and ADT have announced a partnership which will combine Samsung’s SmartThings home automation gear with the alarm company’s security system and optional monitoring service. Consumers will buy at retail and install the system themselves, while professional monitoring by ADT will be an optional extra. This is something of a theme in recent weeks, with Nest’s recent launch of a self-install security system (also with a partnership with an existing company for monitoring) and a separate announcement by smaller smart home company Ring. I continue to be skeptical about the broad appeal of self-installed smart home systems, but there clearly is a segment of the population that’s willing to self install and manage, and expanding into security makes sense for them. At the same time, most buyers are likely to continue to go with service-based approaches to both security systems and broader smart home gear.
The US Food and Drug Administration has pushed forward with plans to test a fast-track process for approving technological approaches to healthcare problems, and has selected nine companies to be part of its pilot program, including Apple, Fitbit, Samsung, and Alphabet’s Verily life sciences unit. Apple has long said that the need to get FDA approval for health-related products would likely dissuade it from entering that market directly, though it’s managed to serve that market indirectly through partners taking advantage of its ResearchKit and other programs. Both Apple and Fitbit have been pursuing health-related applications for their devices, and Samsung launched a virtual doctor service as part of its Galaxy S8 launch earlier this year, so this is clearly a hot area for these consumer tech companies. The FDA deals mostly with products with diagnostic or treatment applications, which is why so much health and wellness tech tends to stop short of those categories and merely provide data and alerts. But the potential for doing more is already clear, and with faster FDA approval we could well see these companies go deeper into this field. It’s still early in this process, and there might still be other downsides including the potential for leaks while approval is being sought, which is likely to give Apple in particular pause, but this is a positive step for both the industry and for end users.
Samsung held a press conference for Korean media today to promote the Note8 smartphone it recently launched and in the process made several announcements. It said that it saw 650k preorders for the Note8, which is strong by Note standards but highlights what a marginal phone the Note is in the grand scheme of things relative to a device like the iPhone or Samsung’s own Galaxy S line. It also said it plans to introduce a bendable smartphone – ostensibly under the Note brand – next year, though the timing is up in the air, and reiterated plans for a Harman Kardon-branded smart voice speaker. None of this is likely to have made much of a dent on a day when Apple dominated consumer tech news, and the Note preorder number is likely the biggest announcement for today, signaling unsurprisingly healthy sales for a device launched into a market with significant pent-up demand after last year’s Note7 fiasco.
I’ve already commented this quarter on Samsung’s preliminary results, which let us know that it would report record high revenues and operating income. But we had to wait until its final and full results for the quarter were out to know the contributions made by its various divisions, though I’d had a good guess in that first comment. As expected, the Semiconductors division (which includes memory, ASICs, and Samsung’s new separate foundry business) was by far the strongest performer in the quarter, growing 47% year on year and contributing 57% of operating income for the company on just 27% of its revenue. That was driven, as expected, by a combination of market growth and price increases, with memory making up nearly 80% of sales. But the IT & Mobile division, which has been stagnant or declining in recent quarters, also contributed to revenue growth, up 17% year on year, the best in several years. A big contributor was the shift of the company’s Galaxy S launch from Q1 to Q2 this year, which had sent Q1 revenues down 15% year on year but boosted the year on year comparison this time around. Profits and margins, though, were both down on last year in the mobile division, suggesting perhaps because of the expenses associated with the launch shifting from Q1 to Q2 as well, and perhaps because the company is making a big marketing push around one of its most compelling flagships in several years. My bet is that the rest of Samsung’s year will go as well as its first half, based largely on the combination of higher chip prices, growing components shipments, and a big boost from Apple OLED orders for its new phones. Some of those drivers will ease next year, especially if other suppliers are able to ramp up OLED production to help meet Apple’s needs in the next generation of phones, but Samsung’s on a pretty healthy trajectory right now and there’s not much sign of that stopping. The biggest short term question is how it will position the Note 8 that’s due to launch next month, given the increases in usable screen size in the Galaxy S line and last year’s troubles, and how competitive it and the Galaxy S8 will be versus the new iPhones launched a month later by Apple.
via Samsung (PDF)
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.