The tech industry is a violent place. The products on top have no guarantees that they will still be wearing their crowns tomorrow as new pretenders constantly come along and attempt acts of regicide. The Google search slayed Yahoo’s directory, the iPhone dethroned the Nokia featurephone, and Netflix currently has the entire TV industry under siege. As a result of this constant war, there are a lot of casualties - and last night a grave robbery took place.
Just over a month ago, at Mobile World Congress, Samsung didn’t announce a new flagship phone, but merely dropped hints. At the time the executive on the stage took hyperbole to dizzying new levels, this time promising “innovation like this industry hasn’t seen in a long time”.
This, on reflection, is almost certainly bullshit - but there is a grain of truth. The S8 does have a couple of things going for it that could change things significantly. But what’s interesting is that neither of them were brand new ideas. In fact, we’ve seen both new features before - pinned on to the ceremonial robes of two earlier pretenders to the smartphone crown.
First, there’s Dex, or “DeX”, as Samsung’s branding people would prefer it. This is a rather clever solution in search of a problem. The idea is that you can plug your phone into a monitor, connect a keyboard and mouse via Bluetooth, and your phone will magically become a functioning desktop machine - complete with multitasking apps running in windows that can be resized and dragged and the like.
It’s a very cool idea, technology-wise, even if who exactly this is for isn’t clear. After all, it isn’t like there’s an infrastructure of monitors and keyboards ready and waiting for phones to be plugged in. Similarly, given that a passable new laptop can be picked up for £150 and the S8 is set to cost in the region of £700, you’d have to be pretty committed to wanting to use your phone for some reason.
Crucially though, this is something that we’ve seen before. In 2015 Microsoft added this same functionality to Windows Phone - calling the feature “Continuum”, and it worked almost identically, with the phone, keyboard and mouse plugged into a small dock device.
Needless to say, the fact that we’re now not all making use of it shows that it didn’t set the world on fire. But this could be a flaw not with the tech, but with the fact that Windows Phone had appalling support from developers and consumers - so no one ever developed apps for the phone, let alone specially configured apps for Continuum.
So now having looted the grave, it’ll be interesting to see if Samsung can make docking our phones as desktop computers a thing: The S8 is guaranteed to sell in big numbers, meaning there will be millions of potential uses of Dex, and as it runs on Android, converting apps for the new form factor should be much more trivial. Perhaps if Samsung can invent a laptop shell for the new phone (rather than have us rely on outmoded desktop), with a sufficiently attractive price point, it could take off.
So what about the other corpse? Remember back in 2014 when Amazon, drunk on hubris following the moderate success of the Kindle Fire thought that it’d be a good idea to try and make a phone too?
The result was the Fire Phone - an Android device that ran Amazon’s own distinct fork of Android, and thanks to its sky-high launch price, it sold appallingly. So much so that Amazon completely gave up on making phones entirely.
But the one thing that the Fire Phone did have going for it was its ambition. This wasn’t just another generic Android device: Amazon installed a camera in each corner of the faceplate, so it could track your face. For some reason.
Another included feature was called FireFly, and on paper it sounds rather smart. The idea was that you could point the camera at stuff and your phone would offer you contextually relevant information. For example, if you’re at an art gallery and point your phone at a painting, the phone would pull up information on it from Wikipedia. If you’re out shopping, point your phone a product you want and the phone would find it on Amazon for you to buy (and now you know why Amazon is so interested in the technology). It would also listen to audio and - like Shazam - attempt to identify the music you’re listening to or the TV show that you’re watching.
If this sounds familiar, it’s because this is the same basic premise as Bixby, which is Samsung’s catch-all name for the S8’s suite of image and voice recognition abilities. When Bixby was announced on stage, a small Amazon logo appeared on screen too - suggesting that the lineage of this technology might be clearer than we think. Perhaps Samsung licensed the technology directly?
As with Continuum, at the time FireFly didn’t make much of an impact - but again, this could be down to poor sales. Many future gazers, like mobile industry guru Benedict Evans, reckon that computer vision could be the next big thing. Given Samsung’s reach, could Bixby be the first step towards this going mainstream?
So… grave robbing is bad, right? You’re presumably expecting me to end with a strict telling off of Samsung for not really innovating - but instead pilfering the ideas of phones no longer with us. I’m still sceptical that this counts as “innovation like this industry hasn’t seen in a long time”. But here’s the thing: Grave robbing can be good.
A couple of hundred years ago, we knew very little about the science of anatomy. The only way we discovered how the human body works is by slicing and dicing a few cadavers. In fact, many of the earliest surgeons were also grave robbers too. So in a sense, Samsung is just following in a long-standing noble tradition.