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Will AI be the next big smartphone feature?

More and more smartphone manufacturers are including unique virtual assistants in their flagship smartphones, but is this really the future or just a fad?

Published onJanuary 9, 2017

Amazon’s “artificial intelligence” software or should we say smart assistant, Alexa, was the quiet star of CES 2017, appearing in a huge range of products, from fridges to smart lamps, to cars. Alexa has even made its debut in its first smartphone, the HUAWEI Mate 9 – Alexa, and this could be the start of a new trend in 2017 that sees smart assistants become important flagship differentiators.

Of course, Google and Apple have been at this for a long time already, and Google Now is already baked in to every new Android smartphone release these days. So really the age of the smart assistant has been here for a while already. However, Google Now certainly isn’t a unique selling point for manufacturers looking to stand out in the competitive high-end market, hence why custom assistants are starting to pop up. Furthermore, vendors are looking for ways to tie in other services and in turn sell more products. Just look at the growing scope of Alexa’s third party app support if you want an indication of where other assistants may be heading.

AI developers like Amazon and Microsoft are deliberately designing their systems to be more easily integrated into third party products.

So who’s at it? Well, a lot of the big brands. HUAWEI with Alexa, Xiaomi has partnered up with Microsoft’s Cortana and other apps with the launch of its Mi Mix concept phone, and even the first two OnePlus handsets saw a similar Cortana update of their own last year. We can probably expect others to take up similar licensing options, as AI developers like Amazon and Microsoft are deliberately designing their systems to be more easily integrated into third party products. Nokia also looks to be prepping its own assistant named Viki, although the company hasn’t announced any official details.

Amazon Alexa commands: Our guide to everything Alexa can do
Amazon Echo Alexa speaker stock photo (1)

This arrangement looks to be a win win situation, with vendors receiving powerful software with which to sell consumers on, while the AI developers profit from selling products and collecting information. Not to mention that the more data collected and analyzed for use with these assistants, the more useful and intelligent they can become. So there’s a big incentive to branch out and put AI into as many consumer’s hands as possible as early as possible.

Alexa is designed for the smart home, so it’s going to take some time before it catches up with Google when it comes to smartphone functionality.

These efforts aren’t just coming from software developers though, some smartphone OEMs are developing their own virtual assistants as well, leading to even greater diversity in the market place. HUAWEI’s new HONOR Magic comes sporting its own AI as part of the company’s new Magic Live UI. Even the new Google Assistant is acting as a lure to the Pixel and Pixel XL over picking the regular Google Now experience available on other handsets. It’s hard to believe that Google Assistant will remain a Pixel exclusive for long, but it is a compelling feature that’s helping the handset sell.

Perhaps most importantly though, Samsung is also heavily rumored to be working on its own smart assistant known as Bixby. Samsung agreed to purchase Viv from the makers of Siri back in October of 2016. According to reports, Bixby will be heavily integrated into Samsung’s app suite that will come packaged with the Galaxy S8. This tight integration will enable Bixby to search for specific pictures using the Gallery app, as well as sifting through contacts, calendar dates, emails, and the other functions that we’ve come to expect from services like Google.

Those heavily tied in to particular ecosystems may find that Alexa, Bixby, etc, just don't play nicely with the services that they're used to.

Speaking of which though, the downside of this diversification in virtual assistants is that of software compatibility. We’re used to Google Now working with Google’s apps, but support from other smart assistants is not guaranteed. For example, Alexa works with Google Calendar but currently only US and UK customers can link Alexa to Gmail by using IFTTT, and that’s not a complete out of the box solution. Of course, Alexa supports a range of third party services that Google currently doesn’t, so there are going to be pros and cons to each software package.

Google Assistant to hit supported TVs and set-top boxes in the coming months

Those heavily tied in to particular ecosystems may find that Alexa, Bixby, etc, just don’t play nicely with the services that they use the most or that they’re used to. For Samsung and the like, perhaps the hope is that consumers will move over to their supported services, but consumers are often reluctant to ditch apps that they’ve become reliant on. This could be a big risk for manufacturers who chose to ditch Google’s popular software in favor of their own more tightly integrated solutions.

The bottom line is that we’re almost certainly going to see a variety of virtual assistant flavors hit the smartphone market throughout 2017, and we can expect manufacturers to spend a lot of time talking about them too. Ultimately though there’s no strict need for AI in a smartphone. It’s going to boil down to how useful and well integrated into other services these assistants are that determines whether or not consumers end up loving them, or if AI become just a meaningless buzzword. We perhaps shouldn’t expect miracles from first generation assistants, but the future could be quite interesting indeed.