Samsung's unwinnable Android AI dilemma

Nearly every app or service that Samsung offers competes with a Google version that users and developers already know -- so how does it break through?

Samsung's unwinnable Android AI dilemma

Trying to get people to focus on a positive development, after the debacle of the exploding Note 7 smartphone and more recently of clothes washers that burst at the seams, Samsung has announced that its forthcoming Galaxy S8 smartphone will include an AI-based assistant called Bixby, similar to the Google Assistant that Google debuted in the Pixel smartphone via Android 7.1 Nougat.

Bixby sounds great at first, but it’s not likely to succeed—for the same reason as most of Samsung’s initiatives to carve out an independent space within the Android work fail.

Samsung is the dominant Android brand for smartphones, for good reason. In recent years it has produced a series of well-designed devices with quality rivaling Apple’s. But it wants to be more than a dominant hardware vendor—it is quite jealous of the services revenue that Apple and Google both get, as well as the deeper relationship with the user that these services provide Apple and Google.

Because of Samsung’s dominance, it wants to be the central relationship with users, not simply the hardware manufacturer. (It’s a familiar dilemma for PC makers: is your central relationship with Microsoft via Windows or with a PC maker like Dell or HP? Microsoft, of course.)

But that means duplicating Google’s services. It’s done that with Samsung Pay, but remains the also-ran by far in mobile payments. It’s created special apps like S Pen to use with the Galaxy Note styluses—a Samsung differentiation on the hardware end for which it needed software support—but these Samsung apps get very little traction. Many—like Milk, Wallet, and ChatOn—have died along the way.

Samsung also failed in its efforts a few years ago to compete with Apple’s home entertainment products (the iPod Touch and Apple TV). The truth is Samsung has repeatedly failed in its attempts to supplant Google (and Apple).

Samsung’s only clear software success is Knox, its enterprise-grade container system for Android, but even there it struggles because Google now has Android for Work, which is nearly as secure and runs on any Android device.

Samsung’s software innovations are always tied to its hardware—it wants users to be all-in on Samsung, even though those users can run essentially the same services in most cases from Google.

There’s little reason to choose Samsung’s services over Google’s. Sure, Samsung has some better apps than Google—Samsung’s email and calendar clients are better designed for enterprise use, for example—but on balance, they’re equivalent services. All Samsung devices get all Google services and apps, so the motivation for users and developers alike to adopt the Samsung equivalent is low.

Low adoption is likely to be true for Samsung’s new Bixby AI assistant. Google has been working at artificial intelligence for years; Samsung bought an AI company only a few months ago, so the chances of its version being as good and well-integrated as Google’s when the Samsung Galaxy S8 comes out this spring are nearly nil. (This reflects a common Samsung mistake: Rushing to play catchup or even beat rumored products to the market, and instead delivering an inferior product that in effect cements the established competitor’s dominance.) 

Samsung has tried to break out of its dependence on Google through Android by creating its own platform (to be a second Apple, basically), but that strategy too has failed. (Remember Tizen?)

I’m not sure Samsung can ever break out of Google’s shadow in the Android world. I get why it keeps trying, and I applaud it for the effort. Maybe something will break out at some point. But whether you’re a user or IT organization supporting mobile devices, understand that any proprietary Samsung software or service isn’t likely to gain traction. Place your own bets accordingly even as you check out each of Samsung’s attempts.

Copyright © 2016 IDG Communications, Inc.

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