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Samsung’s Push To Unite The Internet of Things Centers On Bixby

Whether you call it connected devices, internet of things, or even smart devices, our homes are filled with “intelligent” gadgets and appliances that can make our domiciles unique from everyone else. But after being amazed at being able to control our thermostat, lights, or doors with a smartphone, we’re being ushered into the next era, one that centers on our voice and artificial intelligence (AI).

Amazon has proven that consumers are willing to adopt such technology with its Alexa-enabled devices. And Google provided us with more choices. The two have largely battled it out over the past couple of years, trumpeting the number of skills they have and integrations, but now Samsung is done playing the apparent dark horse and serving notice that it shouldn’t be underestimated. While the Internet of Things isn’t new for Samsung (it acquired SmartThings in 2014 for $200 million), the company is pulling back the curtain on how all its actions in the past have led to it offering up a system it calls “Connected Thinking”.

From headphones to mobile devices, laptops, refrigerators, and televisions, there’s a strong possibility that you might have a Samsung device in your home. This is a big part of what the company is counting on, but it recognizes that people don’t want an all-Samsung home, so at its developer conference, executives wanted to prove it was a platform worth betting on and could offer more growth, scale, and capabilities compared to others in the space.

Advantage Bixby

On October 18, Samsung introduced Bixby 2.0, an SDK that developers can use to make their IoT services smarter on Samsung devices.

Incorporating AI into IoT isn’t new — just look at Amazon and Google. Blimtut what appears to separate Samsung from the pack is its wide array of products that are being transformed into smart devices. At the forefront of this effort is not only the company’s SmartThings offering, but also Bixby, the competitor to Siri, Alexa, and Google Assistant that was first made available on the Samsung Galaxy S8 smartphones and now has more than 10 million users across 200 countries — it’s unknown how many queries have been processed and how many users are active, though. But after a few months, Samsung is seeing good enough traction that it’s casting Bixby into the limelight.

Some may think that Samsung’s approach won’t stand up against Amazon or Google, but there’s a good chance of it succeeding and becoming a dominant platform for the next generation of smart devices. What Amazon and Google have are a growing number of skills and integrations, along with a penchant for retailers like Walmart or Target. In fact, as Amazon’s influence is growing, Google is forming an alliance with businesses who seek to curb Amazon’s growth.

But even though Amazon is out front in terms of development, it’s struggling to get skills that would entice users to return, so the company recently launched a program to help developers monetize their work. It’s quite possible that Samsung could run into this problem also, but it made a good case for developers this week during its Samsung Developer Conference keynote. Not only did it present numerous opportunities for how Bixby can empower IoT devices — like TVs, refrigerators, lights, etc. —  but Samsung teased that soon a dedicated marketplace will be available for skills with a varying degree of compensation based on devices.

“The idea is to create a corporate-wide AI voice system that’s applied to all products we offer,” Won-Jin Lee, Samsung’s executive vice president for its video display business, once told me following the company’s keynote at CES. Ten months later and Samsung is marching forward to realize its vision. And when the company introduced Bixby to reporters in March, while the first use cases were around the smartphone, Samsung didn’t shy away by suggesting the potential for the assistant to help manage its entire ecosystem of products, including those connected through SmartThings.

Developing for services or devices?

When it was Amazon and Google, the options for developers seemed pretty easy — both companies offered good support and had the potential for longevity and integrations. After all, what startup or service wouldn’t want to strike a deal with Amazon or Google? Soon you saw skills like being able to summon an Uber or Lyft ride on Amazon Alexa and actions like playing Blackjack or getting cooking recipes from Food Network on Google Home.

And while there are third-party devices that are integrated, like August’s smart locks, Amazon and Google still have work to do in order to get into the bigger gadgets and appliances we have in the home. Every company is practically looking or working on smart devices, but are they willing to integrate with Alexa or Google Home? Also, do those two have a chance at real mass adoption? Samsung poses a real challenge here because of the established ecosystem that it has.

One need only look at Samsung’s product line to see the potential: refrigerators, televisions, laptops, phones, ovens, stoves, washers and dryers, microwaves, printers, and more. It has a good footprint in two of the most heavily trafficked areas of a home: the kitchen and living room. And quietly it has been beefing up its SmartThings offering, amassing a number of integrations for the right time to launch a full offensive on the IoT market.

Now that Samsung is basically all-in on IoT, what’s possible is that traditional furniture and appliance makers will see the opportunity and flock to develop on the platform. They’ll see this for at least three reasons:

  1. Samsung’s massive footprint and dominance in the Android smartphone category with its popular Galaxy S8/S8+ and Note8 phones.
  2. As newer Samsung devices roll out, they’ll be infused with Bixby and SmartThings technology so consumers don’t have to buy an extra hub — they’ll likely just use what they’re already comfortable using.
  3. Samsung’s track record in home hardware may reassure developers, from startups to traditional companies, that it can present multiple creative opportunities to help consumers get stuff done and be more productive.

Remember that Bixby marketplace I mentioned earlier? While developers are building actions and skills for a single device, the Amazon Echo and Google Home, Samsung presents an interesting option. The company pitched the possibility of offering multiple monetization streams by device. Meaning that you can build Bixby integrations for a TV, fridge, stove, phone, etc. and could likely see additional revenue from them. You might have a different use case by device — maybe your fridge is empty so you’d like to summon an Uber to take you to the nearest grocery store or make a food delivery? Samsung’s appeal to developers is to be creative in the possibilities.

Uniting the Internet of Things

Samsung debuts Project Ambience, a prototype dongle that turns any device into a smart object.

Dag Kittlaus is a storied figure in the world of AI. He’s one of the co-founders of Siri and then went on to start Viv Labs. His last company was acquired by Samsung for $215 million just over a year ago and many wondered what impact his technology would have on Samsung’s pursuits. While on stage at the company’s annual developer conference, Kittlaus spoke about how virtual assistants are useful but they’re playing a limited role in our lives. He questioned what it would take for it to be a “true paradigm”.

Samsung believes there are three principles behind Bixby’s next phase that will separate it from competitors:

  • Bixby has to be ubiquitous, meaning that it’s available on any and all devices, something that Samsung will achieve thanks to its new software development kit (SDK) and also a new dongle device codenamed Project Ambience.
  • It has to be personable — it has to know you and understand the context of your conversation.
  • The technology also has to be open.

This wasn’t the first time I’ve heard these principles. Back at CES, Lee alluded to them during our interview: “You really have to think about how to make the voice technology easy to use and user-friendly so everyone embraces the technology,” he shared.

During Samsung’s keynote this week, one saying really caught my attention. One of the speakers said that while we love our smartphones when out and about, when we’re at home, we want to be mobile-free but still connected. Many of us don’t have the money, time, or resources to create Jarvis from Iron Man, so the closest we’ll probably come is by having an integrated and seamless AI assistant, something that Bixby may be up for the task.

Granted, I’ve had some reservations about the service — it’s been buggy and slow for me, personally — but Samsung appears to be making improvements, so much that it’s betting big time on the technology with this expansion. While Bixby-enabled TVs and refrigerators will make their debuts next year, you won’t have to wait for Samsung to make Bixby-powered tools. You’ll hopefully be able to do it soon, not only with the upcoming SDK release, but with a dongle device the company has called Project Ambience.

Injong Rhee talks about the intelligence of things at Samsung’s Developer Conference on October 18, 2017.

A circular-looking device, Project Ambience is being pitched as a way to transform a “dumb” object like a speaker into one that can respond to voice commands. On stage, Injong Rhee, the chief technology officer for Samsung’s mobile business, demonstrated not only the potential of this prototype, but also how it could connect with other devices and make an entire room “intelligent”. Could this be the Bixby speaker that the company alluded to months ago?

We have enough clutter in our homes so having to buy an Amazon Echo or Google Home only adds to the mess. But where Samsung could also have an advantage is by showing that you don’t need to buy a new device unnecessarily. You might be able to turn what you already have into a smart, Bixby-enabled device with little fuss.

And as appliances and televisions begin to turnover, as is typical, more consumers could opt for smarter versions and as a benefit not only get Bixby, but also a hub that their thermostats, lights, curtains, security cameras, speakers, and vacuum can integrate with.

To help Bixby unite the Internet of Things, Samsung has also streamlined its SmartThings offerings to hopefully make developing simpler. Now it’s cloud-based you’re able to get all the benefits of the resource in a single suite, including security, integrations, testing, and more.

The battle over the IoT space is getting more interesting now that one of the top manufacturers has announced a major investment in the market.

Published in Developer News General News Industry Analysis Internet of Things