Samsung heads in the right direction

Samsung introduced its new Galaxy Note 9 smartphone and two other products at a big event, Samsung Unpacked 2018, at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn on Aug. 9. The Galaxy Note 9 is a beautiful thing. It is better than last year’s model in many ways, and it has new features, including a remote control built into its integral S-Pen. As with most new models of highly evolved technology products, the enhancements are only exciting if you care about well-conceived and well-executed, though incremental, product improvements. This isn’t Samsung’s fault; it is very hard to pack new and exciting functionality into a highly evolved but constrained form factor.

The newly introduced Galaxy Home Speaker is also impressive; just 160 units of the smart speaker filled a basketball arena with impressive sound, complete with thumping bass. It also has a promising integration of the Spotify music service. Additionally, the new Galaxy Watch looks like a high-end watch, not like Apple Watch’s cough lozenge look, and the rotating bezel is a much more satisfying user interface (UI) than the Apple stem-winder. Bixby, Samsung’s smart assistant, included in the smartphone, watch, and speaker, is much improved over past versions, and it will put you through to Google Assistant on the phone.

Taken individually, these products are superb examples of the best of modern consumer electronics products. Plus, there are synergies among them. The best example shown was continuous music playing from smartphone to speaker and from one speaker to another in different rooms. This cohesiveness, Samsung believes, is the future of consumer electronics — open integration to provide seamless intelligent experiences. We agree. Samsung has identified the direction in which these devices must evolve and makes that direction clear both to the outside world and to the company’s thousands of designers and engineers.

Samsung’s proclamation of this direction was unusually loud, but the company is not alone in pursuing this quest. The company’s vision is not very different from one that Apple first expressed when it introduced the iPod to accompany its line of Macintosh PCs, and that which Apple continues to pursue. Google is moving in this direction with both its hardware products and software platforms. Microsoft retreated from its efforts in this direction with its withdrawal from the smartphone market, but TBR believes the company will, at some point, re-enter that space. Finally, Amazon is a major contender, with its smart speakers, tablets and streaming devices.

There remains much to be done to deliver this effortless, seamless experience. Currently, bringing together different products to provide a seamless experience requires effort on the part of the customer. This is essentially systems integration at home, and in many cases the benefit does not outweigh the cost. To be successful, these systems must interoperate, but at the same time vendors want to demonstrate that they work “better together.” Services and devices from vendors other than Samsung, Apple, Microsoft, Google and Amazon must be easily integrated and provide a seamless experience.

The spoken UI is critical to the success of these integrated consumer platforms. Controlling the home environment with a smartphone provides great power and flexibility, but is not worth the hassle; wall switches are a better UI than an app. A smart speaker, however, one that knows your history and preferences, is both powerful and easy to access and use. The problem with spoken UIs is that there are too many of them, and each keeps a separate store of information about the user. Until this problem is solved, Samsung’s goal of a seamless intelligent experience will not be achieved, and while the market for intelligent home devices will continue to grow, it will not grow explosively until all of the integration problems are solved.

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