Samsung dominates the smartphone industry so much so that one in every five handsets sold worldwide come from the South Korean technology giant. But the firm is still reeling from the recall of millions of its big-screen Galaxy Note 7 devices, which suffered from a battery issue that could cause the device to overheat and, in some cases, explode. That recall left Samsung without a flashy new smartphone to go head-to-head with Apple's iPhone 7 and Google's Pixel as the all-important holiday shopping season approaches.
"In a market that is otherwise maturing, Christmas has come early for vendors looking to capitalize with large-screened flagship alternatives like the Apple iPhone 7 Plus and Google Pixel," said IDC analyst Melissa Chau in a report accompanying the research firm's latest smartphone sales estimates.
With the Note 7 dead and buried, Samsung must look towards the future for salvation. One possible route to a comeback: The firm's upcoming Galaxy S8 flagship smartphone will include a new Siri-like digital aide, Reuters reports. The project is a significant strategy shift for Samsung, which typically focuses on improving smartphone hardware, like screen and camera technology, rather than software. Samsung will reportedly bring the devices to a broad range of its devices after it arrives on the upcoming phone.
While any new artificial assistant software inevitably draws comparisons to Apple's Siri, they are well-earned in this case. Samsung's new tech will be based on software from Viv Labs, an AI firm recently acquired by Samsung and led by Dag Kittlaus, the co-founder of the company that sold Siri's early incarnation to Apple in 2010.
Viv Labs first caught the technology community's attention this past May, when it demonstrated its platform at TechCrunch Disrupt. Viv's product turned heads because it appeared to be far more advanced than Siri and other rivals, like Google's Google Now, Amazon's Alexa and Microsoft's Cortana. Viv's software could, for instance, tell you whether it would be warmer than 70 degrees near San Francisco's Golden Gate bridge past 5 p.m. the day after tomorrow — a highly complex query to answer.
Whether Samsung's digital assistant will help it recover from the Note 7 crisis will depend on how useful it actually is. Viv's May demo wowed the crowd, but how the software might behave in a less controlled setting remains to be seen. For it to become a hit, it will need to work well with the various apps, services and hardware we already use, embracing a trend towards cross-compatibility in our voice-controlled software. (Google's new Home smart speaker has been panned for its lack of third-party app integration, an area where the Amazon Echo shines.) Another issue: As Samsung works on its first AI assistant, rivals like Apple and Google are busy improving the software they've been building for years.
Samsung's next smartphone will come too late to make a difference for holiday sales — The Wall Street Journal says to expect it as late as April of 2017. But if Viv's AI software can help make it a hit, this could be the phone that saves Samsung.