Samsung’s $8bn Harman buy: what’s the digital health implications? (UPDATED)

UPDATED Monday’s big news (other than the Dow Jones post-US election climb, China getting shirty on trade and the severe 7.8 magnitude quakes near Christchurch NZ where we hope our Readers are OK) is the $8bn acquisition of Harman International by Samsung Electronics. Those of us who are most familiar with Connecticut-based Harman in the audio area (in cars and Harman/Kardon speakers on this Editor’s bookshelf) will be surprised at their powerhouse status in the automotive industry as a technology hardware and software supplier to GM, BMW and Volkswagen. Its technology is in 30 million vehicles and is tidily profitable. It is also unusual for Samsung as they have tended to grown internally and organically, versus by acquisition. Harman will be operated as a standalone company. (Articles also point out the change at Samsung’s top, with a new generation ascending to control this family-controlled company.)

It diversifies Samsung well past the uncertainties and the maturity of the smartphone business not only into a direct supplier relationship with car makers, but also in how the relationship between man and car transportation is changing. Beyond the obvious like self-driving (piloted driving) cars where Tesla, Ford, Uber, Apple and Alphabet are playing (and the more near-term area like partial assistance in driving), there is a chicken-egg dynamic on cabin enhancements–what can be done versus what should be done. (Designer Raymond Loewy’s MAYA–most advanced yet acceptable.)

  • What connected technologies are helpful and valuable to the driver and passengers?
  • Which ones increase safety, autonomy and security?
  • Which ones add to the driver ‘load’ of distractions and increase danger to the driver and others?
    • Pilots term this a too-busy cockpit. Remember that drivers aren’t pilots and don’t go through checklists and walkarounds before and after driving. We want to turn the key, tune the radio and go.
    • Which ones can be made to be not distracting?
  • What happens when the technologies malfunction or break?
  • What happens to cost and affordability? (All the whiz-bang tech can put a vehicle out of reach for the many. It would be counter-productive and elitist to return driving to the early 20th Century decades where cars were owned by the few and wealthy–Henry Ford and Alfred Sloan had a different thought), though some would like that outcome.)
  • How seamless and secure can IoT be in a vehicle, as it is not secure at present?

All these are in the sub-text of five mega-trends noted at last week’s CES Unveiled New York by the Consumer Technology Association, notably as part of the cheerleading around ‘Transportation Transformation’ and ‘Connections and Computations’. (More about this separately in a later article on CES Unveiled.)

Let’s drill down into the nearer-term health tech aspects, where Samsung has been a leader in their phones and tablets, and what the Harman acquisition might mean there.

The first is the mobilization of what is presently in the home and phone. This Editor sees near-term potential in the car to become its own internet-connected health hub. Here you can have at baseline voice communications without a phone and GPS location tracking. Using the car as a data hub, add monitoring/tracking vital signs and mood, which can be done not by exotic, breakable in-cabin sensors, but by connecting to devices that Samsung already produces such as GoLive Wear. As a hub, it can connect via BTE to monitors: BP and BG devices, diagnostic tricorder/all-in-ones like Scanadu and Tyto Care for that ill person or child far from home, and fall detectors. This last is significant because emergencies, unsafe situations, illness and accidents happen on the road. Difficulty getting into and out of a car can be a leading predictor of mobility loss, and Samsung has already done base research with Gociety Solutions using wearables and the smartphone as a companion. Pushing this a little further out, two way video/audio is feasible with the coming 5G networks.

The second is what this Editor would term ‘Improving Situational Awareness’. All this stuff can be a Dance with Distraction if not carefully approached, but here’s what may be useful. What’s the temperature and weather forecast over the changing drive area? Is there a dangerous weather pattern ahead? What’s the real traffic ahead with accidents and time to destination–can you take an alternate route? How’s the car operating? Are you up on your service checks? Can you warn the tailgater in the BMW behind you that he or she’s too close for comfort? (Too bad we can’t have James Bond’s DB5 oil and nail spreader!)  A step further: does the driver’s interaction with the road and in the car indicate sleepiness or impairment? Action based algorithms from in the cabin and a wearable can tell the tale. Can self-driving assistance then kick in?

More on the acquisition via WSJ (if paywalled search on “Samsung Charges Into Auto Tech With $8 Billion Deal for Harman”), Bloomberg and Harman release. UPDATED ZDNet on the acquisition, positioning it as Apple’s Big Opportunity Miss which includes a couple of nifty growth and complementary capabilities charts.

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