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Samsung's next big thing isn't something you can buy

Instead of showing off the features of its new products, Samsung spent much of its CES press conference talking about its vision for connected devices.


Samsung detailed its vision for the internet of things during a press conference Monday at CES in Las Vegas.

James Martin/CNET

For anyone who's ever watched a Samsung press conference at CES, this year felt different.

To some, that might mean boring.

There wasn't quite the wow factor we've seen before. No moving wall dramatically parted to reveal a massive TV, and shiny refrigerators didn't miraculously appear on stage. There weren't any celebrities to talk about how much they adore Samsung products, though there also wasn't a Michael Bay-level meltdown.

There were new TVs and refrigerators, of course, but Samsung instead spent most of its hour-long presentation Monday touting what's running in the background: The internet of things -- or as Samsung now likes to call it, the "intelligence of things."

"We believe IoT should ... make a consumer's life simpler and easier, to free up time to let them do the things they love," Kim Hyunsuk, the head of Samsung's electronics and research divisions, said Monday at the company's event.

If you've been paying attention to CES presentations this year -- or last year, or the year before that -- this may sound familiar. The idea of smart objects all talking to one another has been a trend the consumer electronics industry has been pushing for a while. At this show, we're starting to see it take shape with many adopting voice assistants like Amazon's Alexa and Google Assistant, and more talk about platforms and artificial intelligence linking everything together.

Of course, every company has its own interpretation. For Samsung, there are three parts to the "intelligence of things": seamless connectivity, a single cloud and "intelligence powered by your voice that allows your device to work smarter and better for you," Kim said.

Because of that belief, Samsung's integrating its various internet-based software into a central cloud under the SmartThings brand. It's going to make sure every device it builds is internet-connected by 2020 (something it first vowed at CES three years ago), as well as integrated with its Bixby voice assistant. And it's going to push next-generation 5G wireless technology to make connections even faster and more reliable.

As all of us hold onto our phones and TVs for a longer period of time, Samsung has been making a push beyond being just a hardware provider. It's also trying to find ways to get us to stick with its devices and keep buying more and more. In short, Samsung wants to build what Apple, Google and Amazon already have: An ecosystem.

Cloudy cloud computing

An increasingly important part of tech ecosystems is the smart home. The Consumer Technology Association, which hosts CES, estimates that sales of smart home devices will reach 40.8 million units and $4.5 billion -- up 41 percent and 34 percent, respectively, from 2017. It expects smartphone and TV unit sales, meanwhile, to both rise only 2 percent.

The SmartThings cloud, Samsung's way to connect its devices, isn't exactly an easy theme to explain, and it's also not something that really gets consumers running to the stores. After all, you can't hold the cloud in your hand like a shiny new smartphone. But for Samsung, and its users, it's important.  

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"It's the glue that pulls everything together, not the big feature consumers will clamor for," Moor Insights & Strategy analyst Pat Moorhead said.

Still, this isn't the first time Samsung's talked about one cloud and connecting all of its devices together. And it's definitely not the first time it's pushed its vision of IOT. Whether it will succeed this time is a big question.

Samsung declined to make an executive available to comment on this story.

If at first you don't succeed

While Samsung makes some of the best-reviewed TVs and smartphones out there, software and services haven't been its forte. Its Tizen software hasn't caught on in smartphones and instead has been relegated to smartwatches and TVs. Samsung has scrapped many of the services it's created, like the WatchOn app to stream video from phones to TVs and its Samsung Media Hub and Milk Video services.

Even programs that are popular with consumers don't always work as planned. A couple of years ago, SmartThing was hampered by glitches that caused users' lights, security cameras and other smart home devices to malfunction.

And Samsung has tended to cram many features into its smartphones, TVs and even new smart refrigerators that consumers don't even know exist. Bixby was its answer for getting around that, but even Bixby gets criticized by users who think it should be able to do more.

Samsung has long tried to get its devices to talk to each other -- with little success. Currently, it has at least four different cloud services that users can tap into. There's SmartThings, which it acquired over three years ago. That software works with non-Samsung products, including Philips Hue light bulbs and the Amazon Echo.

Then there's Samsung Smart View, which lets you stream from your phone or computer to your Samsung TV. The company's also got Samsung Connect, the smart home control app that's less than a year old, and its Smart Home app that lets you monitor and control your devices from wherever you are.

All of those will be rolled into the SmartThings app to connect, control and monitor any SmartThings-enabled device -- which includes Samsung products and devices from other companies – from your phone, TV or your car. The revamped cloud service will be available this spring.

Crowded room

Even with simpler, integrated cloud, Samsung faces rival services that consumers are already familiar with: Google and Amazon.

Google, which builds the Android software running the vast majority of Samsung's smartphones and tablets, happens to have a major cloud business of its own, as well as a popular voice assistant. And Amazon, also a large cloud computing provider, has largely taken over the smart home arena with its Alexa voice assistant.  

Samsung has had some recent success with services. Its Samsung Pay mobile payments technology is accepted almost everywhere, and its Knox security software keeps evolving to keep devices safe. Knox now appears in Samsung's connected devices like smart TVs and appliances.

And Samsung touts a lot of benefits from its new IoT vision and SmartThings cloud. For instance, your 2018 Samsung TV will be easier to set up, while your Family Hub refrigerator will be able to recognize individual voices and give personalized responses and information to each family member.

If Samsung's new SmartThings cloud actually works, it could change the way you use your devices, likely without you even realizing why.

Let's hope the SmartThings cloud doesn't go the way of Samsung's other services: Abandoned in a year or two.

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