Bixby Found a Niche in a Crowded Space, but a Late Entrance Strains its Potential
Samsung's solution is ambituous, but lacking in key areas
When Samsung announced the Galaxy S8, it felt as if they were as excited to announce the new Bixby application as they were the device itself.
They added a button on S8 that exists only to serve the Bixby mission, chased down methods to remap that key, and they even had a PR stint with major mainstream tech sites to advertise their new tech. To say that it must have been a major disappointment to Samsung management that the full Bixby experience was not ready at launch would be an understatement. While a form of Bixby did launch with the phone, it is not until now, nearly 3 months later, that we get our full look at the full Bixby package, with the activation of Bixby Voice. We wouldn’t blame you at all for claiming Virtual Assistant overload on Android, because there is an overload of sorts.
Ironically enough, the Galaxy S8, shipping with 2 assistants, is only mid-pack allowing the HTC U11 to take the crown for “how much personalized assistant software can we throw on a single piece of hardware”. With nearly all Google phones shipping with the semi-matured Assistant, some OEMs are forcing their own hands and adding things like the HTC Sense Companion, and Samsung’s Bixby. Add to this the ever growing Amazon Alexa and Microsoft Cortana and the playing field gets crowded.
Getting Lost in the Crowd
Announced last year, Google’s Assistant is built off of the Google Knowledge graph and Google Now, further enhanced with what were the buds of an easier and more powerful third party integration, home automation controls, and a more conversational element. Earlier this year, Google made it so that the Google Assistant would be available on all new Android phones as well as all Nougat and Marshmallow devices; provided you were in a supporting country. With it though came fragmentation. Actions that could be done through the Google Home device could not be done on the phone. Similarly, queries that the Allo application version could do also could not be done through the core phone application. This led to a largely disjointed service where you were never quite sure if what you wanted to do was actually available through the method you wanted to accomplish it through. But hey, this is Google… we are used to this by now. Fortunately though, Google has made a lot of progress over the last few months making the Assistant more useful and powerful, but its biggest claim to fame is its accuracy boasting near human levels of effective natural language processing in its specific tasks. Google’s ability to not only understand what you are asking, but also the context in which it is asked is almost uncanny and it is amplified with many users keeping a majority of their content in some sort of Google-backed, and Google accessible holding cell. This is something that the two other large players, Amazon’s Alexa and Samsung’s Bixby, simply cannot match.
Just last month, rumors swirled that the real reason Bixby was delayed past the launch of the S8 was because it was having trouble understanding spoken word, and more importantly all the nuances it has. This is particularly troubling when you figure that Samsung has pushed their admittedly-terrible S-Voice service for years, but yet could not get enough data for a passable service at launch. Somewhere in the middle is where we find Amazon’s service and Microsoft. Both of these services are available on nearly any phone, but Alexa takes it a step farther with native integration with specific phones like the Huawei Mate 9 and the HTC U11. The thing about both of these services is that you cannot have them be the default assistant with a wake word, and they are handicapped in terms of full potential since in most cases they are not able to access the system level options that Google and Bixby bring to the table. In most scenarios, to use Alexa or Cortana you have to make a dedicated effort and first launch the service, which really calls into question if using the voice assistant at that point was even beneficial.
Trying to Stand Out
This brings us finally to Bixby and in particular what sets it apart. Obviously being that Bixby is system level, it brings a level of control that only Google can attain, and in some ways it can makes the Google Assistant look like last year’s tech. At its core Bixby is just another assistant that surfaces things it already knows about you by your demographic, browsing history, and so-on, and makes it look like magic while calling it AI. Beneath that though is what Samsung has really been working on all this time, a service that not only can fetch things for you, but can also do things for you. First there is the standard, but hardly working in the beta, “what’s the weather”, “how’s my favorite sports team doing”, or “how old is the president”. But on top of that is integrations into first party and third party applications. Some examples of what Bixby can do is make Facebook and Instagram posts simply by voice and navigating into settings menus and different application layers. Instead of simply saying “Open YouTube” and having the application launch, you can ask it to navigate to your YouTube channel. The application will open, and then navigate to your desired location. Deeper level integration into applications like this is something that we really have not seen from a developer so far and shows a lot of promise, but it also has some pitfalls.
Anyone who used a Galaxy device prior to the Nougat update knows that Samsung’s multi-window was severely limited. Application developers had to modify their applications to work with Samsung’s implementation or it simply would not be available, without modifications. While this was remedied by root, it was still a problem and pitfall that Bixby looks to be walking head on into as well. Samsung is known for its poor support of software and fragmentation of their platforms and developers simply did not flock to supporting Samsung’s Multi-window. Similarly, Bixby appears to require that developers to support it through a supplied, but not yet ready API. Further, you have to be a user of Samsung’s core applications which are quite hit and miss, so things like the Google Calendar and GMail app are out. until and if they are updated. This stands to severely hinder the support of Bixby for much more than core applications, and in some of those cases the Google Assistant does just as well. While Bixby is still in beta it has some flaws that show that it may have not even been ready for this stage with issues ranging from not understanding simple basic queries like “will it rain tonight”, to surfacing the wrong data in response to a question. It also is slow, and for those of us used to Google’s blazing fast responses this will make Bixby feel like more of a chore than a true assistant.
Having an assistant that makes things more of a chore by not understanding our request, not being capable of carrying out our request, or having to be launched before use, really hinders the growth of the service. How much of this will be fixed through future upgrades is unknown, but we can speculate that they will because of the push Samsung is making to have this be the premiere Voice Assistant for its users. Personally, outside of some limited use cases I have not found voice assistants to be particularly helpful, with many of the tasks I can do by voice are just as easily carried out manually. While interesting, Bixby’s integration into applications is not particularly deep and most of which can be carried out singlehandedly on the device itself faster and with better accuracy or precision.
Implementation Potentially Realized
However, this application integration is where Bixby may be able to carve itself a nice cozy niche; helping people who cannot carry things out manually, or easily. While expanded accessibility services are an aide to those to need to make use of them, Bixby’s ability to dive deep into applications and carry out tasks beyond the simple tap, tap tap, stands to serve as a massive help. For some, doing things like posting photos to Facebook is a daunting task, but being able to ask Bixby to post my photos from today to Facebook make this task simple and help to remove a barrier some may face every single day. Samsung’s accessibility services are already top notch, but Bixby can launch this forward into what was once impossible, or required dozens of steps and a lot of time. However, Samsung still needs users and developers to fully support and embrace Bixby to make this happen and that will be a difficult task. Samsung is still marketing this as an assistant for all users, and while that is true, its real potential may lie in doing what others cannot, for those who cannot.
For the past 2+ months, S8 users have had a fairly useless button on the side of their phones, making it the butt of jokes across the industry. By the time Bixby Voice rolls out, and it still may not even be a full service then, we could be looking at 3-6 months into the phone’s cycle. By then many users may have simply stopped caring or just used the built-in Google Assistant, which may not be quite as diverse in its abilities, but excels at the things it can do. And that is kind of the state of Voice Assistants on Android right now. There is a lot of competition, and a lot of excellent ideas, but they all have to cross the major hurdle that is Google.
Bixby is built off of what we already have, a so-called personalized assistant that tries to predictively provide the information or tools that we need by using information we have already provided it. Likewise Bixby Voice enters an already crowded space, where talking to our phones is great for the simple things but not so much beyond that. Where Bixby Voice stands apart though is the “beyond that”, the area where our voice assistant is not only in tune with us, but also in tune with our device and the applications and services we use beyond toggling the flashlight. But Samsung needs developer support, and they need it bad. They also need more users, more data, and support for more countries and languages, and this is going to be a near impossible hurdle to climb. Google Assistant, Cortana, and Amazon’s Alexa, all started by doing a few simple things and perfecting those while slowly expanding. Samsung is instead jumping into the pool head first with ambition, throwing caution to the wind, like it so often does. It has found success in this method in the past even if it is a little hit and miss. For instance we now recognize Samsung for the near perfecting of the dual edge Infinity display, but lest we forget there was once the Galaxy Round. Bixby’s reputation is already tarnished by its flubbed launch, and stands to see even more tarnishing if they cannot manage to lock down these everyday functions voice assistant users rely on. But the first step has been taken, the product is in the hands of a few users, now Samsung needs fine tune what it is already providing and unfortunately focus back on selling it to the users. Until then though, there really isn’t any reason for most users to switch from what they are already using as a voice assistant; if they are even using one in the first place.
What do you think of Bixby so far? Let us know in the comments below!