By acquiring the Viv virtual assistant from the makers of Apple’s Siri, Samsung has joined the AI smartphone wars.
Now, Google, Apple, and Samsung all have their own AI-driven personal assistant to put at the center of our mobile devices. Apple has been developing Siri as the core of its mobile and desktop operating systems since buying the technology in 2010, and Google’s first true smartphone will exclusively have Google Assistant.
The message from these companies is clear: just as apps defined smartphones in the 2000s, the next frontier of mobile computing is a virtual entity that helps its owner manage the barrage of information coming their devices. Phones by Apple, Google, and Samsung are similar in design, computing capability, and each have access to roughly the same pool of apps—but each will pursue a slightly different path through their artificially-intelligent assistants.
You can differentiate their strategies by looking at what each of the companies can offer:
Samsung is one of the world’s largest producers of TVs, washing machines, refrigerators, and computers—all of which build an ecosystem that would be well-served by an AI that makes them all a bit smarter, and allows them to work together.
Viv CEO Dag Kittlaus told TechCrunch that his company was attracted to the amount of hardware Samsung ships each year.
“They ship 500 million devices a year. You asked me onstage about what our real goal is, and I said ubiquity,” Kittlaus said, referring to an interview during Viv’s TechCrunch Disrupt demo earlier this year.
Kittlaus told Quartz that he doesn’t expect Viv to be in every device Samsung ships, but only “in those where using voice to interact makes sense.” He also says Viv will stay open so developers will be able to create new third-party integrations.
We don’t know a lot about how Viv will work inside a product, other than the question and answer abilities shown at TechCrunch Disrupt. Kittlaus claims that the assistant could write its own code to incorporate new skills, although Samsung will modify the software heavily to fit into smartphones, TVs, and other devices.
About 90% of Google’s revenue comes from selling targeted advertisements. This funds largely-free, core software like Android, Maps, Gmail, and Drive, all of which are mined for more information to feed its advertising machine. The more information Google gets, the more money it can make.
Unifying those services under a personal assistant, and then putting that virtual assistant everywhere in your life through your pervasive Google account means more information than ever before. As Slate’s Will Oremus writes:
It’s a big selling point for Google, because the company views Google Assistant as its core product of the future: an A.I.-powered agent that can do anything from open apps to control home appliances to manage your calendar to answer questions about the world. It’s an extension of what Google has always done with search, and it’s not hard to see how it positions the company’s advertising business to target us more effectively and ubiquitously than ever.
Your information is the ultimate product, so just getting people to use Google services is a win for the company.
It’s a rare occasion that Apple was actually ahead of the curve in a software feature, but, at its root, Siri is meant to enhance the functionality of the iPhone itself. The assistant manages your information through Apple’s iCloud, but Apple is adamant that it’s not an advertising company and doesn’t leverage your information for direct monetary gain.
Siri is known for its sassy personality, and it’s possible that when a personal assistant becomes a mainstay of computing, this personality could factor into consumer purchasing decisions. Samsung’s pseudo-assistant S Voice, which was never really touted as an assistant but had some similar question-and-answer functionality, never seemed to gain traction and was rarely mentioned as a selling point. However, Siri and Microsoft’s Cortana both take on a persona, and have seen great growth in usage. More than 100 million people with Windows use Cortana monthly, and a recent survey found 98% of iPhone owners have used Siri.
It might be possible in the future that a customer would have to like the virtual assistant in order to buy the phone. Siri, Google Assistant, and now Viv are digital avatars for the phone’s operating systems, a reflection of the phone itself. All we know now, however, is that the race is set.