We are maybe at a pivotal stage in the evolution of smartphones, especially with the first ‘post-smartphone’ devices like the Humane AI pin making their debut this year. While it has not become obvious yet, smartphone companies seem worried that they too will need to offer AI capabilities on-device, not as a gimmick but as a core offering.
AI is nothing new to smartphones. Companies have been touting AI cameras and other features for a few years now. But they were all in the pre-GPT era where it was an add-on that enhanced a certain functionality. Users could well do without it, and they did. The real AI phone so far has been the Google Pixel phones where they used the company’s understanding of this emerging technology to take at least smartphone photography to the next level. And this is where the new Samsung S24 series is pushing the envelope and giving us a view into how AI could change smartphones in the near future.
The S24 series brings in a range of AI capabilities in the spheres of photography, productivity, and language communication. There is nothing here that will blow your mind and the features shown so far are all progressions of features we have seen before. However, live translation during phone calls, the ability to transcribe and summarise meetings as well as photo editing suggestions are all features users will end up using as they solve real-life problems.
But when I said the S24 series shows where smartphones are headed, I was not talking about these features. Interestingly, the hardware of the S24 series is not much different from what came out in the S23 last year. Given that flagship smartphones anyway, pack more power than users can use up, you could well see the focus shift to AI-led software enhancements of the type you have seen in the S24.
Incidentally, Samsung’s briefings and press notes about the S24 series hardly talk about the processor, battery, and other specs that were thrown at you at every launch over the years. The focus is clearly on the new AI-led enhancements. That is the narrative and it is refreshing. Samsung is talking about what the phone can do for you and not what is powering all that tech in the backend, a detail that goes over the heads of most users.
But this gradual shift has been happening for a while now. The Google Pixel for instance does not have the most powerful processors around, but that is not a factor in what the phone can do on the AI front. This is because top-end processors are already capable of handling even these AI tasks on-device.
And this is the other big shift we are seeing — towards on-device processing of queries. The S24 can handle most of the AI stuff without access to the internet, except when it is dabbling in generative AI. This means users will not have to wait to see the results if on a slow network. And that will help make these features more usable and used. Also, for those who are privacy conscious, this would give them the peace of mind that their data is not being misused. When Apple comes up with its AI features, I won’t be surprised if they are handled entirely on-device.
But then companies could be exploring the other end of this spectrum too. If all the features can be AI-enhanced and handled remotely, all the phone needs is a basic processor, good display, and battery life. This means they could offer more affordable smartphones and offer features as a service on top of this. Customers benefit from lower pricing and the flexibility to maybe pay for only those features they use. This Chromebook-like concept is also not new and at least some of us remember the short-lived Robin concept phone. In 2016, the phone was way ahead of its time. But in 2024, AI could well make the concept of a thin-client smartphone feasible and even attractive to lots of users.
However, when asked about this after the Galaxy S24 launch, Wonjun Choi, Executive Vice President at Mobile eXperience Business in Samsung Electronics, head of the Flagship Product R&D Team and the head of the Technology Strategy Team, told IndianExpress.com did not agree with the thin client logic and said they believe the key features of the smartphone will remain and the performance will continue to improve and develop to accommodate and support such key features.
The author is in California on the invite of Samsung.