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Why CES 2018 is critical for Samsung

Expect the company to push its Bixby voice assistant at the massive tech show, as it smartens up its products.

Chris Monroe/CNET

Hey, Bixby. How do you work on my refrigerator and TV?

Next week, we'll likely find out.

Samsung will talk up its newest products when it hosts a CES press conference at 2 p.m. PT on Monday at the Mandalay Bay hotel in Las Vegas. You can expect a parade of televisions, home appliances and other electronics, though it's likely nothing is going to blow you away.

Still, this year's CES is critical for Samsung because it marks the expansion of its Bixby voice assistant beyond smartphones. We'll likely see Bixby pop up in televisions and some home appliances, and we could hear about Samsung's bigger plans for the technology. Samsung may also talk about other services and offerings beyond its normal unveilings of new gadgets.

Bixby and other services are important as Samsung attempts to show it's more than just a giant phone and TV company. The voice assistant is also key as Samsung tries to get customers to stick with its devices and seek out more of its products. The company has long had a reputation for cramming too many features into its devices, and its products are capable of doing so many things, customers sometimes have no idea how to access features. Bixby has the potential to change that.

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"A lot of people don't know how to take advantage of advanced capabilities of their devices that have been out for years," Technalysis Research analyst Bob O'Donnell said. Samsung this year is "going to focus on how to improve the experience of [its] devices."

But Bixby's emergence in that range of products comes as consumers have already started establishing relationships with voice assistants from other tech heavyweights. There's Apple's Siri, Amazon's Alexa, Microsoft's Cortana and the Google Assistant, with each being heralded as the future of how we'll interact with our gadgets.

Industry watchers expect this year's CES to yield a bevy of smart gadgets -- speakers, televisions and more -- equipped with Alexa or Google Assistant. Gartner believes that by 2019 digital assistants will be the primary way consumers interact with their smart homes.

Bixby's ambitions

Samsung has been pushing Bixby as a way to control your devices, a sort of "bright sidekick" that makes it easier to do things like changing settings.

The voice assistant hit the market on Samsung's Galaxy S8 and S8 Plus last year and also showed up in the Note 8. Before Bixby even launched, Samsung had already vowed the technology would quickly expand to other devices.

At its developer conference in October, the company said the second generation of Bixby would soon come to its various nonmobile devices, including its smart TVs and Family Hub refrigerator. We'll likely see those gadgets in Las Vegas.

Bixby 2.0 is smarter than the first version, with deep linking and improved natural language capabilities, Samsung says. It can better recognize individual users and better predict people's needs. The update integrates predictive technology from Viv, which Samsung has said would help Bixby work with third-party apps.

Viv, technology Samsung acquired in October 2016, is intended to handle everyday tasks for you, like ordering flowers, booking hotel rooms and researching weather conditions, all in response to natural language commands. The creators -- including one of Siri's makers, Dag Kittlaus -- say their software understands your requests and engages in conversation with you to fulfill them, instead of making you speak prefab commands like other AI assistants do.

It's unclear how much of Viv's smarts, if any, will show up in the new devices.

Samsung in general also has had difficulty generating enthusiasm for many of its software products. The company leans on Google's Android software to run the vast majority of its smartphones and tablets, while its own Tizen operating system has struggled to gain a foothold. Meanwhile, Samsung has scrapped many of the services it's created, like the Samsung Media Hub and Milk Video.

There have been some growing pains for Bixby, as well. Consumers are still confused about what it can do, analysts say. It's not a search query pro like Google's Assistant, and it doesn't have all the skills Amazon's Alexa has.

"With Bixby, until it's clear what it's supposed to do for me, how am I supposed to get excited and put all my eggs in a basket and say this is what I want?" Creative Strategies analyst Carolina Milanesi said.

Voice everywhere

Bixby is geared to act as a new interface to control your phone, but it'll be different for Samsung's appliances and televisions, Samsung's then co-CEO, Yoon Boo-Keun, told the German publication Suddeutsche Zeitung at the IFA electronics show in September. For Samsung's connected refrigerators, Bixby will be able to recommend recipes based on what you have in your kitchen.

For TVs, a key product category at CES, Bixby would learn what shows you normally watch and automatically play them when you turn on the television, Yoon said.

Samsung's strategy to include voice isn't unique, with others expected to make a big push with digital assistants in TVs this year. LG plans to integrate Google Assistant into its 2018 TVs, as well as make the televisions work with Amazon's Alexa in a more limited capacity. Sony added Google Assistant capabilities to its televisions in November, and its sets also work with Alexa, thanks to a beta app. HiSense, a Chinese TV maker, plans to offer some smart TVs with Alexa, and it's likely we'll hear about others at CES.

Samsung does have one big advantage when it comes to the TV market: It's really, really big. From January to November last year, one out of every four TVs sold in the US came from Samsung, according to NPD. Vizio followed, with a 17 percent market share, and LG had 10 percent. When it came to TVs that cost more than $1,000, nearly half sold in the US were made by Samsung.   

Consumers aren't likely to buy Samsung televisions or appliances to get Bixby. But the company is hoping the voice assistant isn't something they immediately turn off. 

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