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Samsung Electronics president and head of mobile experience TM Roh announces the capabilities of the new Galaxy S24 range at the launch event in San Jose, California. Pic: ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK


Software and AI defines future of smartphones

The launch of the Samsung S24 range last week marked a seismic shift in smartphone positioning, writes ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK.

It is rare for a smartphone launch to redefine the future of the industry, but this week Samsung attempted to do just that. At the Galaxy Unpacked event in San Jose, California, on Wednesday, the Korean electronics giant unveiled three models in the new Galaxy S24 series. In the past, it would have focused on hardware breakthroughs and upgrades that represented either a revolution or evolution in smartphone specifications. This time round, the specs were almost an afterthought.

Media and influencers at the Samsung Galaxy S24 launch in San Jose. Pic: ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK

That meant the stars of the show were not the handsets, but their capabilities. Samsung announced a new overarching brand: “Galaxy AI”, which symbolised the company’s shift in focus from hardware specs to software capabilities. The flagship of the range, the S24 Ultra, contains a processor optimised for AI, the new Qualcomm Snapdragon 8 Gen 3 chip. The versions of the other devices that will be available in South Africa will run on less advanced Samsung Exynos chips. In principle, this means the Ultra can run AI processes on the phone itself, rather than depending on generative AI in the cloud.

However, a test of the devices during the launch showed that even the more basic phones are AI-capable. The features expected to be most widely used are camera capabilities, such as AI-generated slow-motion. The phone uses AI to generate additional in-between frames that were never captured by the camera, but generated from the existing frames to create the slow-mo effect.

The new Samsung Galaxy S24 range is unveiled at the launch event in San Jose, California. Pic: ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK

A feature called Photo Assist will improve or correct photos by analysing an image and identifying, for example, reflections resulting from taking a photo through a window. When an AI option is selected, the software offers suggestions on how to enhance the photo. In one test, it erased the reflection and, in another, erased a shadow on a face. These are all possible with existing software and apps, but until now have required photo editing expertise as well as downloading software. For the first time, such tools will be instantly accessible on smartphones to any user.

For business people, a range of AI live translation features will be revolutionary. In one test we phoned a Spanish restaurant and spoke in English, then listened as the phone translated the words into Spanish for the listener. He responded in Spanish, and the phone translated his words back into English. While that capability does exist in software, it is the first time that it can be accessed “natively” on a phone without downloading or accessing additional tools.

A function called Interpreter allows for a face-to-face conversation between, for example, an English and Korean speaker, translated live on a split screen, with each speaker seeing the words in their own language on one screen. The feature does not use generative AI in the cloud, as is usually the case with such functionality, but can be used in Airplane Mode, literally in flight.

Samsung Electronics president and head of mobile experience TM Roh announces the capabilities of the new Galaxy S24 range at the launch event in San Jose, California. Pic: ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK

A language pack shipped with the phone includes 13 languages at launch, with more to be added.

“The Galaxy S24 Series transforms our connection with the world and ignites the next decade of mobile innovation,” said TM Roh, president and head of mobile experience business at Samsung Electronics, during the launch.

Kgomotso Mosiane, mobile experience head of marketing for Samsung in South Africa, told Business Times on the sidelines of the event that it was not so much the end of the hardware wars as the dawn of new capabilities.

 “More than anything, it defines the beginning of an era,” she said. “Expectation now is going to be around what capabilities make your life easier from an AI perspective.”

Equally significantly, Samsung has pulled the rug out from under the marketing feet of other flagship manufacturers by, in effect declaring vaunted hardware specs irrelevant. That is, of course, a dangerous strategy, as it could backfire when Samsung itself announces major new hardware innovations.

An example was a revolutionary cooling system called a Vapour Chamber, built into the S24 Ultra to prevent the phone from overheating during extended use of AI or gaming.

Renowned South African hip hop artist Nasty C, who incorporates gaming into his shows, attended the event, and told Business Times: “The experience overall will be much, much, much better. The cooling system has had a huge upgrade. So when you’re playing for two, three hours, four hours, you won’t overheat and start glitching and lagging. The cooling seems to be the big one for gamers.”

 For now, however, it is the AI that gives the brand a major competitive differentiation in its positioning.

“From a positioning point of view, the key thing is that AI has finally arrived in South Africa for any user, on one device, and you no longer have to download third party apps to be able to access AI capabilities.

“While it’s a big shift, it’s a shift for good. Your phone now is no longer just a phone and camera, but it’s an assistant.”

The new Galaxy smartphones will be released in South Africa on 14 February 2024.

* This feature first appeared in Business Times in The Sunday Times.

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