Adam Cheyer, Co-founder of Viv Labs the $200 Million Acquisition Behind Bixby, Has Left Samsung – Exclusive
Voicebot has learned that Adam Cheyer has left Samsung in the past month. Cheyer was a co-founder of Viv Labs which provided the technology behind the new Bixby which emerged in 2018 after being acquired by Samsung in October 2016. Cheyer is also well-known as one of the three founders of Siri that was acquired by Apple in 2010. The move could be coincidental but there is also news circulating that Samsung is considering whether to shut down Bixby as part of a big deal with Google.
The Timing of Cheyer’s Departures
Cheyer’s departure would not normally be viewed as atypical for a co-founder to exit a giant global company about four years after a nine-figure acquisition. In fact, I asked Adam about this during an interview in July 2019. He insisted at the time there was a great deal of work to be done and he was clearly motivated to build Bixby into a globally recognized leader as he had previously done for Siri at Apple. That motivation was still on display when he presented to a packed ballroom at Project Voice in January 2020. Things change and people’s priorities evolve. The real question was still why was a highly successful serial entrepreneur still working for a tech giant so long after the acquisition. His departure was inevitable at some point.
But, the timing is certain to raise some interest. Bloomberg reported yesterday that Google was in advanced talks with Samsung about a new search deal for smartphones. Google reportedly spends somewhere between $7-$10 billion annually to Apple to be the default search engine on iPhone. Samsung actually sells more smartphones annually that Apple worldwide so it is interested in a similarly big payday. This might be financially more necessary for Samsung after severe declines in smartphone sales due to COVID-19 economic impacts.
Apparently, there are strings attached to Google’s offer that include more prominent positioning for Google Assistant and its Play app store according to Bloomberg. So, the question is what would happen to Bixby. Google Assistant is already available on Samsung phones. Would Bixby have less of an advantage, no longer be the default, or would it live on and little would change. Reuters made a stronger point earlier today saying, “Samsung Electronics Co Ltd is considering dropping its Bixby virtual assistant and Galaxy Apps Store from its mobile devices as part of a new global revenue-sharing deal with Alphabet Inc’s Google, according to correspondence seen by Reuters on Tuesday.”
None of this means that Samsung will do the deal. But, it the twin reports seem to confirm Samsung is seriously considering either replacing or rethinking its Bixby strategy in some way. Voicebot data show that in the U.S. in June 2020, nearly double the number of Samsung smartphone owners have used Google Assistant as Bixby — 50.8% compared to 28.6%.
The Timing of Other Departures
And, Cheyer’s departure is not an isolated incident. A review of LinkedIn records show that at least seven people departed the Viv Labs Bixby team at Samsung between January and April. This is not that unusual for turnover in tech. But something more interesting happened over the last 30 days with four more prominent departures. Robbie Pickard, a lead conversation designer for Viv Labs, left for a similar role at Amazon. Senior Engineer Theo Gravity departed for an incubator and new startup. He had been with Viv Labs since before the Samsung acquisition.
In addition, David Oh, who formerly oversaw developer relations has moved to Facebook for a role in developer marketing. Information about these other departures is available on LinkedIn. It is interesting that two and arguably three of these people had public-facing roles for the company. Also, I could not find any open roles related to Bixby on Samsung’s hiring website.
Will Bixby Live On?
With that said, Viv Labs and the Bixby team still has much of its core leadership intact. Larry Heck, who took over as CEO of Viv Labs and Bixby when Dag Kittlaus departed is still on board as is COO and VP of Product Marco Iacono. And, I was recently introduced to the new lead for developer relations within the past month. It’s not as if everything has halted. Here are the likely scenarios:
- Bixby is acquired by Google and some of its technology gets folded into the Assistant – 5%
- Bixby is deprecated and Google Assistant becomes the lead voice assistant on all Samsung phones – 30%
- Bixby becomes a solution within Samsung’s appliances and essentially disappears from phones – 20%
- Bixby sticks around with a lower profile and Google Assistant has more prominence on the phone – 35%
- Nothing changes and Bixby remains Samsung’s big voice assistant bet with no quarter granted to Google – 10%.
It seems like scenario 2 has the momentum according to news sources but I give it no more than a 30% chance of occurring. More likely is that Bixby remains active in some form given how widely Samsung has sought to integrate it into the company’s broader AI ambitions. If Google writes a big check, they are likely to get something more than just search traffic but it will come down to how much Samsung needs the revenue. If they close a $10 billion deal, the Bixby acquisition will have been a key part of inflating what Google will pay. It will also show how dearly Google values the Assistant as part of its long-term strategy.
Bixby and Viv Labs’ innovation entered the market a bit late and has not yet shown big consumer adoption. However, from a technical perspective, it pushed the envelope and created a model that the early market entrants are starting to adopt. Much would be lost if Bixby was simply shut down.