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CES 2019: Monday 7 January

Samsung, Intel and Qualcomm Come to the Fore

We continue our coverage of CES 2019 with a selection of the biggest stories from yesterday’s press conferences from heavyweights including Samsung, Intel, Qualcomm, LG and others.

Artificial Intelligence an Omnipresent Theme

In our curtain-raiser to CES we tipped artificial intelligence (AI) to be the lead theme at the event (see Vegas-Bound CES Pilgrimage Looms). All the evidence from the numerous high-profile media events so far has confirmed this expectation.

AI has featured in almost every press conference, but assessing its effectiveness and whether it’s anything more than a few clever algorithms is proving almost impossible. At CCS Insight we believe the technology needs to deliver continuous improvements to a product, service, process, workflow or device over time, but we fear that in many cases it may be more about ticking the relevant boxes and keeping up with technology buzzword bingo.

This “AI rinsing” risks devaluing the long-term potential of the technology, and there’s a danger that unrealistic claims about its capabilities could hinder progress in the coming years. During the show we’ll continue to assess how companies are using and presenting AI, and will seek to draw more meaningful conclusions in our event reports after the show ends.

Samsung Keeps Focus on Intelligent Connected Devices

Samsung’s main press event at CES saw it continuing to focus on its strategy of adding connectivity and intelligence to the vast proportion of the half a billion consumer electronics devices it sells each year, spanning TVs, domestic appliances, mobile phones and more. Central to this is its SmartThings platform that has become a regular theme at major industry events over the past two years.

During the press conference Samsung also underlined its 5G credentials, particularly in the US. It sees potential in handsets in this market, taking advantage of the significant time-to-market advantage over arch-rival Apple. This is also true in the context of both smartphones and infrastructure, where Samsung senses an opportunity to benefit from Huawei’s challenges with the US government. Interestingly Samsung also talked extensively about its strength in semiconductors, claiming to offer a “cost-effective 5G solution with low power and a small form factor”. Semiconductors were a prominent topic in the keynote session and underline the growing importance of silicon for Samsung (and others) in delivering deeply integrated and customized solutions based on AI. This was evident in a range of categories.

AI was another big theme that Samsung focussed on once again, along with its Bixby voice assistant. The manufacturer believes it can tap into a huge opportunity provided by the potential scale its consumer electronics devices can offer over time. It pointed to 71 percent of US households already having a Samsung device in their home. If it’s able to realize its vision of connecting all these devices it would form a powerful network of end points with its AI platform and Bixby assistant integrated. However, this could take many years and we remain concerned that it’s taking longer than expected for Samsung to advance its current vision. A good example of this is the Galaxy Home smart speaker that it announced in August 2018 and said would ship by the end of 2018. The product is still tagged as “coming soon”, so there’s clearly work to do. Or perhaps Samsung lacks confidence in its Bixby assistant to go head to head with more mature smart speaker solutions from rivals such as Amazon and Google.

Samsung culminated its press event with the unveiling of four new robots. This comes as little surprise as momentum for robots grows, particularly in Asian markets including South Korea. Its new robots target healthcare (Bot Care), air quality (Bot Air), retail (Bot Retail) and individuals with physical disabilities (Samsung Gems). The company boldly claimed that these machines would harness “the best of Samsung hardware, software and AI”, but it’s clear this is merely the beginning of a very long journey into the robotics domain.

Intel Swaps Style for Substance

Intel delivered its strongest keynote presentation in years at CES. Despite lacking the high visual impact and pizzazz that characterized recent years, the session focussed firmly on Intel’s core business and strategic growth drivers with a succession of substantive product announcements. The company introduced its new mobile PC platform Ice Lake and a preview of Lakefield designed to integrate different intellectual property into a compact motherboard while using a hybrid CPU architecture and the first iteration of its Foveros 3D packaging technology. This should prove to be a hugely significant step in delivering new thin and light form factors. Both platforms use Intel’s 10 nm process and the company used the opportunity to highlight progress made in the face of recent difficulties with the node.

At the data-centric end of Intel’s product spectrum, the company announced several important developments. The Nervana Neural Network Processor is designed to sharpen Intel’s position in data centre AI inferencing and features Facebook as a development partner. This is supported by its next-generation processor Xeon, labelled Cascade Lake, which is now shipping and offers Intel’s DL Boost to accelerate deep learning inference. Both are important steps as Intel strives to break the market perception that inference, as well as training, has to rely on a graphics processing unit. Finally, the company announced Snow Ridge, a network system-on-chip designed to address the 5G base station opportunity. This is a new market for Intel and one that bolsters progress made in carrier network transformation. We continue to believe that Intel can be successful in 5G without winning against Qualcomm in modems.

Qualcomm Promises Over 30 Commercial 5G Devices in 2019

Qualcomm updated its guidance for expectations about launches of 5G devices in 2019 using its Snapdragon 855 platform and X50 modem family. It now expects more than 30 device design wins, most of which are smartphones. The vast majority of these will also use Qualcomm’s RF Front End solution. This is a strong endorsement of Qualcomm’s leadership in 5G and highlights the potential for the company to benefit from the added complexity of 5G by expanding its share of silicon content under its RF360 joint venture. This supports our expectations of a sharp rise in 5G growth moving into 2020, and despite initial challenges of 5G coverage, device cost and applications.

Apple AirPlay 2 Coming to LG and Vizio TVs

On the heels of a partnership between Apple and Samsung unveiled on Sunday, LG and Vizio have also announced support for AirPlay 2 to enable Apple devices to play content on their TVs. This differs slightly to the Samsung announcement in that it doesn’t extend to iTunes content through an app on the TV (see CES 2019: News from Media Day). Nonetheless, it’s another sign of Apple’s determination to drive services growth as a priority. This is a fascinating change in philosophy: Apple is prioritizing the vastly expanded reach through such agreements over the hardware-centric opportunity for Apple TV. We believe this is a wise move considering the small addressable market for Apple TV relative to the stronger potential of services growth. The announcement is further evidence of Apple’s content ambitions and we expect further efforts throughout 2019.

LG Continues Relentless Focus on Artificial Intelligence

LG delivered the opening keynote presentation at CES for the first time presenting its vision for AI and solutions that work seamlessly, with AI operating as the invisible backbone. But although LG presented an attractive view of a future enabled by AI, it lacked substance. Furthermore, we remain perplexed by its decision to overtly brand AI despite talking about its inevitable ubiquity and the importance that it works seamlessly and invisibly in the background.

In its press conference earlier in the day, LG provided an extensive overview of its eclectic mix of consumer electronics devices. It highlighted its automatic capsule-based craft beer maker dubbed LG HomeBrew and its LG Styler “smart” wardrobe that can remove wrinkles from clothes. It also showcased many of the products that fall under the LG ThinQ AI brand umbrella, such as smart fridges and washing machines, although how intelligent they are is open to debate. Furthermore, its closing remark that “LG is committed to delivering a holistic and integrated AI experience” compounds our concern about the marketing of a nebulous technology as a feature.

Beyond AI, and like all other global mobile phone makers, LG set out its intention to be a leader with a Qualcomm-powered 5G smartphone. It also became the latest company to support Apple’s HomeKit in addition to AirPlay, joining Samsung, Sony and Vizio in doing so, and we expect others to follow.

HTC Seeks to Maintain Its Leadership as a Premium VR Company

HTC launched the latest version of its PC-tethered Vive headset, called Vive Pro Eye and featuring built-in eye tracking. As we predicted over a year ago, eye-tracking has become hot area in virtual reality, with all the top players making significant investments. We firmly believe that this technology opens up many opportunities for creating even more immersive virtual reality experiences. We expect Oculus and Microsoft’s hardware partners to follow suit in 2019.

HTC also teased the Vive Cosmos headset, which sits in between its PC-tethered Vive virtual reality headsets and the standalone Vive Focus device. The Cosmos is wireless and features inside-out tracking, but needs to be tethered to a PC or a smartphone. It will also run HTC’s yet-unreleased Vive Reality software platform. HTC didn’t provide any further details on the Cosmos device or Vive Reality, but we expect to hear more about them in the coming months.

Finally, HTC announced the Viveport Infinity subscription service, which was dubbed as “Netflix for VR” as it provides subscribers unlimited access to over 500 virtual reality apps. It also announced compatibility with Firefox’s virtual reality browser, in addition to a WebVR partnership with Amazon Sumerian, a platform for building virtual and augmented reality and 3D apps. We’ll provide more details and cover other announcements in our post-event report.