With Apple missing the mark with its acoustically strong but intellectually weak HomePod, Samsung may have what it takes to leapfrog its arch rival with a smart speaker, and smart home device, all its own.
Rumors of Samsung's smart speaker are now fact after mobile operations boss DJ Koh announced plans for a speaker higher in quality than the Amazon Alexa range, while speaking at Mobile World Congress in Barcelona this week.
Although not naming his rivals directly, Koh said: "When I introduce the first model I don't want to give the impression that Samsung delivered another affordable mass model. I want to focus on more premium."
A premium smart speaker puts Samsung up against the Sonos One, Google Home Max and the Apple HomePod — and leaves the more affordable Amazon Echo range and regular Google Home (and Home Mini) behind.
This might sound like an uphill struggle for Samsung — especially as its Bixby personal assistant has had a slow start when compared to Siri, Alexa and Google Assistant. But Samsung has a trick up its sleeve called SmartThings, a smart home system that's about to get an overhaul, and all-new app ,on the Galaxy S9. With this — plus Bixby — Samsung is well positioned to deliver a better smart speaker than the HomePod.
Here are 10 things Samsung must do to ensure its smart speaker leapfrogs the Apple HomePod:
1. Allow full access to as many streaming services as possible
Apple's infamous walled garden approach means the HomePod only really works with Apple Music. While Spotify can be played from an iPhone connected via AirPlay, this approach isn't ideal. If Samsung gives full support to Spotify and other music streaming services — the way Sonos speakers work with dozens of others — this could give Samsung a winning edge.
2. Be OS agnostic — include iOS and Android support
Even worse for the HomePod is its inability to work with anything other than iOS devices. The speaker simply doesn't work with Android phones at all, whereas — of course — the Samsung speaker will. Samsung loves its own ecosystem — and this family of smart home products is larger than Apple's. But the company also lets its products play nice with others, another point against Apple.
3. Offer greater and simpler smart home integration with SmartThings
Apple has HomeKit and its Home iOS app, Samsung has SmartThings. And while neither have really captured the public's interest like Amazon Alexa and Google Home, they are worthy competitors when properly configured.
That said, while we feel Apple HomeKit is in need of a major update, and a more intuitive user interface, Samsung is about to launch an all-new SmartThings app with the Galaxy S9 smartphone. This app will bring smart home device control to that phone, plus other Samsung devices like TVs and smart fridges. This ecosystem is the perfect home for a smart speaker.
4. Bixby must do more than Siri out of the box — but that shouldn't be difficult
Bixby joined the assistant race late and struggled to get out of the blocks when it arrived in 2017. But big things are on the way, Samsung says, with updates tying in with the Galaxy S9's release in March. Samsung says Bixby 2.0 will land later in the year, perhaps at the launch of the Galaxy Note 9, likely arriving at the IFA technology show in September.
Before we get there, Apple has presented Samsung with an open goal by deliberately giving Siri fewer features and less intelligence than she has on the iPhone and Mac. If a Bixby-powered speaker can do simple things like make phone calls and access the user's calendar, then it will already do more than Siri on the HomePod.
5. Bixby's contextual awareness can be a win for Samsung
A unique feature of Bixby is how the smart assistant knows what you're doing and looking at when you ask for assistance. Say you're looking at an image on your Samsung phone. You can ask Bixby to 'make this my wallpaper' and it knows what to do.
Apply this intelligence to the smart home and Bixby could understand which TV you are looking at, which speaker you want music to play from, which fan you want to use. If Bixby knows which room you are in — via the location of your phone, perhaps, or via the nearest device's microphone — then it can appear more intelligent than its rivals.
6. Make it cheaper, but not by much
Samsung says it wants to avoid the low end of the market. They may be referring to the $49 Amazon Echo Dot, or the $159 Echo Plus. But either way there is a big gap before Samsung knocks on the door of the $349 HomePod. Samsung could produce a premium Bixby speaker and make it appear good value at $299, twice as much as the tier below yet still comfortably undercutting the HomePod.
7. Make adding and setting up smart home devices as simple as possible
We haven't seen much of the new SmartThings app just yet, but we already know Samsung has placed emphasis on its simplified interface. Where even the Amazon Alexa and Google Home apps make adding smart home products a multi-step and sometimes complicated affair, Samsung looks determined to simplify the smart home.
Samsung said this month it wants to "remove the complicated steps that are often required to complete everyday tasks and chores."
Apple makes adding new devices to the Home app simple — just take a photo of a barcode on the box. But controlling them isn't as straightforward as it should be. Samsung could fix this with SmartThings.
8. Add as many connection options — wired and wireless — as possible
Finally, the simplest win of them all — include lots of connectivity options. The HomePod doesn't connect to anything via Bluetooth or a wired connection, as everything happens over Apple's own wireless system. Google is also guilty by not fitting the Home Mini with an auxiliary output for connecting it to other speakers.
If Samsung gives its Bixby smart speaker an auxiliary port it will already be ahead; throw in USB, optical and Ethernet too — and Bluetooth and Wi-Fi — and the reviews will be glowing.
As a bonus for Samsung Galaxy owners, there should be a super-simple option for them to connect to the speaker, as there is for iPhone users and the HomePod — just don't leave everyone else out in the cold, Samsung.
(Check out The GearBrain to learn what smart home products and connected devices work with Google Home or Amazon Alexa.)