With the official debut of the Samsung Galaxy Note 9 less than a month away, it’s worth keeping in mind that, while this year’s powerhouse phablet will definitely bring with it some hardware changes, the software side of the equation is probably going to count for a lot more than it usually does this time around. Specifically, when it comes to Samsung voice assistant Bixby.
If you’ve not deep into this stuff or haven’t used any recent Samsung smartphones, it’s possible that you might have not even heard of Bixby before. Bixby is Samsung’s voice assistant. It’s to their Samsung Galaxy smartphones what Siri is to Apple’s iPhones.
Pretty much every Samsung Galaxy device from the S8 onwards can call up the AI-powered assistant by name or by using the dedicated Bixby key.
In its current incarnation, Bixby manifests in three main ways.
Firstly, there’s Bixby Vision. This is a sort of AI-powered analog to Google Lens that makes your smartphone’s camera smarter by seamlessly feeding you contextual information about the world around you. Bixby Vision can be used to easily translate foreign languages, scan QR codes, identify and inform you about landmarks or businesses and even identify specific wines. It can also convert text in an image into regular text, so you can easy copy and paste it. You can also use it to search for similar objects (using Pinterest) that the camera “sees” and, in markets outside of Australia, even order that product online.
Secondly, Bixby Voice is a natural language processing platform that allows you to tell your phone to do things. It’s much closer to Siri than it is the Google Assistant - but it does allow you to open apps, compose messages, book appointments and all the usual stuff.
Finally, Bixby Home is basically a shared newsfeed located to the right of your home screen that feeds in information from all your various apps into one shared interface.
What’s exciting about Bixby?
From the moment it was announced, Samsung’s big point of difference was inter-app and two-step commands.
The (noble) idea here is that using your voice to control your phone should (eventually) offer the same degree of functionality as you’d get if you were using your hands. Where you can tell the Google Assistant or Siri to open a specific app on your phone, you can tell Bixby to open a specific part of a specific app, do things within an app or change specific settings for the app itself.
The go-to example here is Uber. Rather than tell Bixby to open the Uber app and then physically go through the process of bringing up your payment history to check a receipt. You could just tell Bixby to bring up your more recent order in Uber and it would figure out the rest, saving you time. That’s the idea anyway.
The other theoretical advantage that Bixby can offer versus stuff like the Google Assistant or Amazon’s Alexa is that Samsung don’t just play in one area of consumer electronics - they play in almost all of them.
With Bixby, the plan was to standardize the smart home functionality of the company’s existing appliances and other ‘smart things’ through a single voice interface. With the launch of Bixby 2.0 at their developers conference last year, Samsung declared that their voice assistant would be coming to TVs, refrigerators, washers, speakers, and other connected devices.
Rather than have to tinker with middle-men platforms like IFTTT, Bixby promises to make voice commands across all of your devices seamless and consistent. As long as those are Samsung devices, anyway.
What’s wrong with Bixby?
Well, much like Siri, Bixby has a suffered from a gap between its current real-world functionality and that offered by Amazon’s Alexa and the Google Assistant.
Why isn’t Bixby as good? There’s a few reasons.
Firstly, the accuracy of the natural language processing and voice-recognition itself was initially weak when compared to the competition. At launch, there were plenty of videos and articles going around showing off Bixby's inability to correctly and consistently comprehend voice inputs.
Given that a voice assistant being able to understand you is a foundational upon which their usefulness is built - this is a big issue. If you have a poor or unreliable experience with Bixby understanding you, you’re naturally going to feel a bit reluctant to trust that it’ll be able to do so in the future.
While there’s no doubt that Samsung have likely refined and improved this side of things since Bixby first launched, its early shortcomings here have left many tech reviewers and consumers with a bad first impression of the assistant - and changing that impression is going to be an uphill battle.
Another barrier to Bixby is that the third-party support for the platform just isn’t where it needs to be. Due to the assistant only being available on to a single smartphone brand, app developers are reluctant to embrace Bixby in the same way that have been with Alexa and the Google Assistant.
Inevitably, this means that the mass adoption necessary with make Bixby standard just isn’t there - which means that a lot of apps just don’t support it, which in turn undermines the core promises Samsung are making about why their Assistant is better because it's capable of things like inter-app and two-step commands.
Simply put, Bixby just isn’t as knowledgeable or reliable as the other options, so there’s not a lot of reasons for consumer to use it over them.
How can the Galaxy Note 9 address these problems?
With the launch of every Samsung device featuring Bixby, a chorus of complaints emerge about being saddled with Samsung’s voice assistant and unable to remap the physical button used to summon it. That’s not going to change until Samsung do something to make Bixby better.
The first, and I think smartest, way to rise above these complaints, would be for Samsung to take the stage at the Galaxy Note 9 reveal hardware event and straight-up tell their customers that they’ve heard their complaints and will allow them to use the-key-formerly-known-as-the-Bixby-key to summon the voice assistant of their choice.
Like holding onto the headphone jack, it’d be easy this see Samsung portray this as a confident, consumer-friendly decision that plays up Samsung's positioning is a company that actively listens to customer feedback.
Hell, if they want to take this move even further, they could even roll back that change to affect every Samsung device with the Bixby key - not just the new Note 9 - and maybe even roll out aversion of Bixby that’s available for non-Samsung devices.
There are a dozen boring, business reasons Samsung probably won’t do any of the above. But I still think they should. It’s an easy win and, right now, Bixby could use one of those.
Besides, the harder part is going to be breaking through the bad first impressions left by Bixby's launch.
There are going to be plenty of jaded and cynical tech journos at the Note 9 announcement who remember the myriad problems that Bixby had at launch. Samsung need to prove to them that things are better now. They need to go big.
To start with, show them that Bixby is capable of the same kind of AI-powered scene recognition and post-processing that the Google Pixel, LG G7 ThinQ and Huawei P20 are. Then, do something that the Google Assistant or Amazon Alexa can’t.
Get Bixby to perfectly transcribe or take useful notes during a meeting. Get Bixby to help teach someone French. Use Bixby Vision-powered AR to show someone how to diagnose a problem with their car engine. Get Bixby to point out inaccurately-quoted statistics or filter fake news as you’re reading it. Get Bixby to order a pizza for everyone in the audience. Just get it to do something.
Show off Bixby in a way that gets people talking in the same way Google did with Google Duplex a few months back. Give customers a more-tangible, everyday reason to want to use Bixby over the other options.
Better than that, give consumers a timeline of when these new features will arrive.
Giving them a reason to go back to Bixby is one thing, but getting them to stick with it is a whole other kettle of fish. They’re probably going to be much more likely to stick with it if they know that there’s a reason to hold out.
As a person who loves writing about technology, Bixby’s two-step and inter-app functionality super exciting - but if you want developers to embrace Bixby and raise the net-value of that ecosystem, Samsung need to get customers engaged with the platform.
The Galaxy Note 9 is a chance for Samsung to reset the narrative on Bixby - here’s hoping they make use of it.