Samsung’s Galaxy S8 has virtual assistant, supports only Samsung products

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The trouble with technology when it moves as fast as it does today is that the gadget you want is always the one that’s about to come out. We’ve seen this through generations of products, but never more so than with smartphones. Now the buzz is all about Samsung’s new Galaxy S8 and how it measures up to the still unreleased iPhone 8. But let’s leave iPhone rumors aside and concentrate on Samsung’s entry, a fine phone indeed.

Released on March 29 and now available for pre-orders from carriers and retailers, the S8 compels attention if only for Samsung’s debacle with the Note 7, which created a massive recall and cost the company billions. Will consumers embrace a new Samsung product or sit this round out? The smartphone market is lively enough that I doubt many will wait.

What’s intriguing is that Samsung has put enough new features into this phone to divert the conversation to its strengths. The phone is visually striking in ways we can expect the iPhone 8 to be as well, with an extended wraparound display screen that is genuinely eye-catching.

This is an OLED screen (Organic Light-Emitting Diode), which means enhanced color without LCD backlighting. Samsung Display makes these screens, and its expertise with them has led Apple to choose arch-rival Samsung to supply OLED screens for the next iPhone.

The iPhone 8 will be the first Apple smartphone with an OLED screen, so Samsung has good reason to be happy even when customers choose an iPhone over the S8, though the choice may not be easy. Both phones have tradeoffs that have to be considered, in that both ask customers to lock in not just to a phone but an ecosystem of surrounding products.

Consider Bixby, the new voice assistant built into the Galaxy S8. Samsung’s S-Voice, never a success, is being replaced with a virtual assistant with enough clout to look at your photos and find nearby shopping recommendations or tourist attractions. Bixby is deeply integrated into the phone, but it supports only Samsung apps at the moment. It’s also in competition with the likes of Google Assistant, Alexa and Siri. Is there room for yet another assistant?

Possibly so, but consider the confusion now settling in with the Android OS. When do you push the button to summon Bixby and when do you use Google Assistant? And which product for which use? In a similar way, the Galaxy S8 integrates with a desktop dock if you’ll buy another Samsung product, and can control (via Samsung Connect) smart home devices if they’re made by Samsung. Otherwise, you need to buy a Samsung router to do the job.

By emphasizing its own apps, Samsung is producing a phone that asks you to operate within its own range of products. This is nothing new – the whole choice between Apple and Android has been about not one but a family of products that support each other. The hope was that Android would offer a more open solution than Apple’s famous walled garden, but manufacturers like Samsung can see the advantage of having gardens of their own.

So where we are today is that the next gadget you want isn’t always the one you wind up with. iPhone users tend to stick within the Apple universe because of the collection of products, like Apple’s new AirPods, that work so easily within its family. It takes a lot to get someone to abandon that ease of cross-device capability because a new phone catches the eye.

So I don’t expect many iPhone users to convert to the S8. But within Android there is still enough flexibility to make moving between Samsung, Google, LG and others a possibility. The smartphone makers would do well to keep that flexibility intact before market niches harden into place and market shares are completely predetermined by previous decisions. Keeping Android as open as possible ensures the widest range of choice for those in its smartphone universe.

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