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We need to talk about Samsung's Bixby
Inside Samsung’s latest Galaxy S8 and Galaxy S8 Plus lives Bixby, the company’s second attempt at AI assistant. While it may be too early to tell whether Bixby truly adds any practicality, unfortunately, my first impression tells me this could potentially be another S-Voice fiasco.
To the competition, welcome, young Padawan
Samsung isn’t exactly new to the realm of AI assistants: after all, the company did launch the infamous S-Voice with the Galaxy S3 way back when. A poor imitation of Apple’s Siri at best, S-Voice was heavily criticized, quickly forgotten, and slowly became one of those apps that you disable right from the moment you get your phone.
Well, after endless rumors and its acquisition of Viv, an AI platform developed by none other than the makers of Siri, the South Korean company finally unveiled Bixby. That’s right – the subpar S-Voice has officially been fired, and Bixby is the new assistant with a fresh voice who will be living inside your latest Galaxy smartphones.
It’s true that virtual assistants are the next big thing, but in a world dominated by the likes of Alexa, Cortana, Siri, and most of all, Google Assistant, is there really a place for Bixby?
It’s true that virtual assistants are the next big thing, but in a world dominated by the likes of Alexa, Cortana, Siri, and most of all, Google Assistant, is there really a place for Bixby? Alexa boasts support for an incredible range of smart devices; Siri is now more mature and lives inside popular gadgets like the Apple Watch and the MacBook; Google Assistant uses the search giant’s data to deliver seamless information to most Android phones. And Bixby?
There are several differentiating factors according to Samsung. To begin with, there is a physical button that summons Bixby. Instead of answering to your voice command, you can press the button anywhere inside an app to bring up your assistant. As Samsung puts it, it’s a multi-nodal intelligence service, meaning it uses context – whether you are currently in the Gallery or Camera – to complete its actions. On top of that, features like Bixby Vision and Bixby Search integrate smart object-recognition technology right into the device’s native apps. Samsung is also expected to bring Bixby to its vast roster of home appliances, so Bixby might prove itself to be more or less useful depending on your home.
Nonetheless, I can’t help but think Samsung’s offering is just far too incomplete to be competitive against what’s out there. From the demos we saw, from the way it works, and from a practical standpoint, I am not convinced that Samsung has created an AI assistant that is intelligent and useful enough.
A little less conversation and a little more “touch my body”
Though Ariana Grande might tell you otherwise, a little more “touch my body” is what concerns me. Samsung thinks that repeated voice activation requests are an unnecessary step for the user, and while I agree to an extent, I think having the option to summon Bixby with a voice command is essential.
My personal experience tells me that virtual assistants are far more useful when they work without requiring any physical touch.
Though Samsung’s focus seems to be on in-app actions – so while you are holding the phone in your hand – my personal experience tells me that virtual assistants are far more useful when they work without requiring any physical touch. For example, I use Google Assistant on my phone only when I am unable (or unwilling) to physically get my phone and unlock it: when you wake up at 7AM and want to check the weather or when your hands are covered in butter and flour and you need to a quick unit conversion.
While the all-new Galaxy S8 and Galaxy S8 Plus have Google Assistant also on board for these situations, the sheer necessity to use Google Assistant in these situations highlights Bixby’s limitations. Perhaps voice commands will come to Bixby in the future, but for now, its dedicated button doesn’t make you all that dedicated to Bixby.
Samsung widens the Android fragmentation
Speaking of Google Assistant, Bixby’s existence means that Samsung is again worsening the Android fragmentation problem, making Google unhappy and leaving users confused.
When I read reports claiming that Google may have tried to keep Samsung from pre-installing Bixby onto its flagship devices, I wasn’t all that surprised. Whether it’s true or not, this move makes sense not only because Bixby would become a rival to Google’s own Assistant but also because this would worsen the one problem that Android has persistently faced since its inception: fragmentation.
I don’t use the f-word lightly, but unlike S-Voice, Bixby is deeply-integrated and threatens the fundamental Android experience. Of course, Samsung has always been good at making Android not Android (for better or worse), but when its software becomes obtrusive and harmful to Google Assistant inside an OS designed by Google, it becomes a problem.
Your average consumer doesn’t know what the difference between the two is, but still, Bixby greets you when you press the button below the volume rocker, yet Google Assistant answers when you press and hold the home button: it’s simply a lot going on when there doesn’t need to be this much chaos.
It’s simply a lot going on when there doesn’t need to be this much chaos.
Third-party support or the lack thereof
What Samsung demonstrated is, objectively speaking, very neat: you can go into your gallery, select a few photos, summon Bixby and ask it to create an album called “Family Photos.” Or you can take a photo with Bixby Vision right inside your camera app, and it’ll tell you what it is, provide nearby sights if it’s a place or give you shopping recommendations if it’s a product. These are some of the things that no other AI assistants can do because they don’t live inside other apps.
However, the issue is that Bixby supports only 10 apps at launch, and these are all Samsung’s own native apps. So what happens if you don’t use Samsung’s gallery but Google Photos instead? What if you use Chrome instead of Samsung’s browser?
Bixby will be an afterthought for many developers whose priority lies within assistants like Google Assistant, Alexa, and Siri.
Samsung says that third-party support is coming, but that’s going to be a big challenge even for a company of this size and power. Bixby only lives within two devices as of now and will probably be confined to few Samsung devices even in the future, so Bixby will be an afterthought for many developers whose priority lies within assistants like Google Assistant, Alexa, and Siri.
How many apps support Samsung’s “edge panels” after two years? Virtually none. Bixby doesn’t offer anything extraordinary to change this pattern, and without extensive third-party support, Bixby will meet the same fate as S-Voice, tucked away and never used. Launch day was barely over before some were calling for a replacement assistant for the Bixby button.
Bixby will grow, but this baby needs to grow fast
With all these setbacks, Bixby needs to perform well at least. Unfortunately, from what we saw from early demos, things aren’t looking too bright for this nascent assistant. In a controlled demo, when asked to set the brightness to 50 percent or display the latest photos taken with the phone, it took its sweet time, telling us to “Hold on.” To be fair, it did all of its tasks well eventually (though its performance in real life remains to be seen); however, compared to the speed and natural diction of Google Assistant, it’s still far behind.
Of course, Bixby is bound to improve. Samsung said so when it first unveiled it: the company specifically said that this is only the first step, and that the company’s vision of revolutionizing AI will take time. Although I am underwhelmed by Bixby after so much hype, I am excited to see how it will grow. Just one thing though – Bixby needs to grow fast because the moment users and developers think it’s just another gimmicky bloatware by Samsung, it will be fired, just like its predecessor.
What are your thoughts on Samsung’s new AI assistant? Let us know by leaving a comment below!