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Samsung goes all in on its Bixby digital assistant

Eui-Suk Chung, Samsung's head of software and AI, details the company's vision for how to evolve Bixby, including by opening it up to third-party developers.

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Eui-Suk Chung, Samsung executive vice president and head of software and AI, says the company is committed to artificial intelligence. 

Angela Lang/CNET

Samsung is going all in on artificial intelligence -- and making its technology open. 

The company plans to move its Bixby voice assistant to more products beyond mobile devices, open the software up to developers and make it work with five more languages, in an effort to help its AI technology gain traction with users, Eui-Suk Chung, Samsung's head of software and AI, said Wednesday during a presentation at Samsung Developer Conference. 

The aim is to change Bixby from a way to control phones to a platform that works across all Samsung devices and various third party apps.

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"AI will truly transform every experience we have with consumer electronics," Chung said. "With Samsung, Bixby is our singular commitment to AI. We believe Bixby fundamentally changes how people use technology and what they can do with AI."

Developers will be able to make apps that take advantage of Bixby, fulfilling a vow Samsung made when it first introduced the technology early last year. And though Bixby already works on smartphones, TVs and refrigerators, it'll come to even more devices, including tablets and its still-unreleased smart speakers, Chung said. The technology will also work with more languages -- British English,  French, German, Italian and Spanish -- "in the coming months," he noted. 

Samsung will spend $22 billion on artificial intelligence by 2020, Chung added. He reiterated Samsung's plans to employ 1,000 artificial intelligence specialists by 2020 -- the same time frame it's given for making all of its products internet-connected and integrated with Bixby.

Samsung made the announcements at its fifth annual developers conference, taking place Wednesday and Thursday in San Francisco. The event, which started off small at a San Francisco hotel, in 2016 expanded to Moscone Center West, where Apple previously held its developer conference. Last year, 5,000 people attended SDC.

Along with making Bixby smarter, Samsung on Wednesday unveiled its redesigned smartphone interface, called One UI. The company wants to make it easier for users to navigate their phones, particularly as they keep getting bigger.

Samsung also showed off its upcoming foldable phone for the first time. The device, which will be mass produced "in the coming months," is a tablet when it's fully opened and then a phone when it's closed. It uses a new display technology called "Infinity Flex Display" that lets you open and close the device over and over without any degradation.

Bixby everywhere

Samsung has been building its capabilities in software and services over the past decade, but it's had more flops than successes. It's launched services, including Bixby's predecessor, S Voice, only to scrap them a few months or years later. Instead of using its homegrown Tizen operating system in its high-end smartphones, Samsung has relegated the software to wearables and other products and continues to rely on Google's Android software to power its smartphones and tablets.

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Samsung is hosting its fifth annual developer conference this week in San Francisco.

Shara Tibken/CNET

SDC reflects Samsung's big push to get developers to make software specifically for its devices. In the past, that's meant making apps that work on the edge of Samsung's curved smartphone displays or take advantage of its S Pen stylus. This year, that focus has turned to Bixby and artificial intelligence.

"While Samsung wasn't the first mover with software developers, Samsung commands developer attention because it manufactures approximately 500 million consumer devices annually that are currently or will be 'smart and connected,'" Moor Insights & Strategy analyst Patrick Moorhead said. 

For Samsung and numerous others, artificial intelligence is the next big wave of computing. Every tech heavyweight is investing in these assistants because they're heralded as the future of how we'll interact with our gadgets. The ultimate promise for the smart technology is to predict what you want before you even ask -- but in most cases, the digital assistants just aren't smart enough yet.

The problem for Samsung is it might be too late.

Only 4 percent of US adults accessing voice assistants on a smartphone use Bixby, according to a survey by Voicebox.AI. That compares to 44 percent for Siri, 30 percent for Google Assistant and 17 percent for Alexa.

Meanwhile, Amazon's devices account for 63 percent of the smart speaker market in the US, with its Echo and Echo Dot leading the pack, according to an October report from Strategy Analytics. Google claimed 17 percent, with its Home and Home Mini in the next two spots. Apple also has a lead on Samsung with its HomePod, which launched last year for $349.

Samsung hasn't yet released a smart speaker, though it unveiled the Bixby-powered Galaxy Home speaker during its Galaxy Note 9 launch in August. It spoke about the product again Wednesday but didn't detail a launch date or selling price. 

Still, Dag Kittlaus, CEO of Viv, an AI company Samsung bought in 2016, and vice president of mobile R&D at Samsung, on Wednesday said it's still early in the world of AI, and now's the time for developers to get on board. 

He unveiled Samsung's new Bixby Developer Studio, a collection of tools to make it easy for companies to make apps that take advantage of Bixby. They'll be able to make "Capsules," which are like Amazon Alexa's skills, to do things like play music. The Capsules will be made available to consumers in Samsung's new Bixby Marketplace. 

No longer just a sidekick

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DJ Koh, CEO of Samsung's mobile business, has made a big bet on the Bixby digital assistant.

Angela Lang/CNET

When Bixby launched over a year ago, the aim was for the technology to act as a "bright sidekick" on smartphones, letting users easily and quickly do things like take a screenshot or find a photo and send it to a friend. It was a new interface, not a full-fledged digital assistant that could tell you how tall Abraham Lincoln was or what the capitol of Kansas is.

Last year, Samsung expanded Bixby to refrigerators and televisions and added more capabilities to the digital assistant. Samsung also said it would work with select partners on apps that tap into Bixby, its first step before opening up its software development kit more broadly at SDC 2018. Now, Samsung wants Bixby to work across its devices and tap into various apps and services. 

"Bixby is morphing from a product feature to a platform," Moorhead said. "The Developer Studio is a one-stop shop for developers with the aim to make it easy for anyone who has a service work with Bixby."

First published Nov. 7, 10:23 a.m. PT
Continuously updated with additional details through 12:35 p.m. PT

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