Forget foldable phones. Samsung's Bixby assistant is about to get smarter

The rumored Galaxy F may capture all the buzz, but Bixby will take center stage at Samsung's developer conference.

Shara Tibken Former managing editor
Shara Tibken was a managing editor at CNET News, overseeing a team covering tech policy, EU tech, mobile and the digital divide. She previously covered mobile as a senior reporter at CNET and also wrote for Dow Jones Newswires and The Wall Street Journal. Shara is a native Midwesterner who still prefers "pop" over "soda."
Shara Tibken
6 min read
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Samsung's Bixby digital assistant is getting a boost in capabilities -- but the question is whether it's too late.

The South Korean company on Wednesday will kick off its two-day developer conference in San Francisco, an annual event that reflects the company'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 turns to Bixby and artificial intelligence.

While the prospect of a foldable smartphone -- the long rumored Galaxy F -- may draw eyeballs to Samsung's 10 a.m. PT (1 p.m. ET) keynote, that's more a tease of what's to come. The meat of the presentation will be all about the now: getting Bixby smarter. The consumer electronics giant could share more information about the Bixby-powered Galaxy Home smart speaker that it unveiled in August, including its sales date.

Watch this: Samsung introduces more conversational Bixby

Samsung plans to let all third-party developers tap into Bixby, according to The Wall Street Journal. Soon companies will be able to make "capsules," similar to Amazon Alexa skills, to do things like order food using a voice command, the paper said.

The move would fulfill a vow Samsung made when it launched Bixby on the Galaxy S8 in early 2017 and when it unveiled version 2.0 of the AI technology later in the year: opening Bixby up to third-party apps. The goal is to help Bixby compete with the likes of Amazon's Alexa, Apple's Siri and Google's Assistant at a time when digital helpers are all the rage, allowing you to call an Uber ride or control your smart home with your voice. 

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.

"They're really far behind," said Strategy Analytics analyst Jack Narcotta. "They might be far enough behind, they may not be able to effectively catch up to any of the market leaders."

Only 4 percent of US adults accessing voice assistants on a smartphone use Bixby, according to a survey by Voicebot.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.

Samsung declined to comment ahead of its developer conference.  

Samsung's first Bixby speaker, the Galaxy Home, revealed

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A bright sidekick

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.

While Bixby has its own dedicated button on the side of Galaxy smartphones, Samsung devices users can still access the Google Assistant through the home key. Given the option between Google Assistant and Bixby, many users opt for Google, analysts said.

"Most people start using digital assistants with difficult things like search," Creative Strategies analyst Carolina Milanesi said. Because that's not what Bixby was built for, the results are often disappointing "so people never go back."

She added that it would be difficult for people to give up the Google Assistant on a phone unless Samsung makes the technology hard to access. "But I wouldn't advise them to do that," she said, "unless [Bixby] is amazingly better."

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.

An image-recognition component, called Bixby Vision, could identify landmarks, types of wine, products and text for translation. Bixby would tell you what the items were and, in the US, send you to Amazon to buy them.

At first, Bixby worked with only 10 Samsung preloaded apps. From the very beginning, Samsung said it planned to let third-party app developers take advantage of Bixby. That's partially why it bought AI startup Viv Labs and Joyent, a cloud computing company, in 2016.

Viv was intended to handle everyday tasks, like ordering flowers, booking hotel rooms and researching weather conditions, all in response to natural language commands. The creators -- who included one of Siri's makers, Dag Kittlaus -- claim their software understands your requests and engages in conversation with you to fulfill them, instead of making you speak formulated commands like other AI assistants do.

The initial version of Bixby used only technology that Samsung created in-house. But Bixby 2.0, which Samsung unveiled at its developer conference a year ago, integrated predictive technology from Viv. Launched on the Galaxy Note 9 in August, Bixby 2.0 is smarter than its first version, Samsung says, with deep-linking capabilities and improved natural language capabilities. It's built to better recognize individual users and better predict peoples' needs.

Over the past year, Samsung also has worked with select partners on apps that tap into Bixby, its first step before opening up its software development kit more broadly at SDC 2018. And Bixby has made its way to Samsung's new Galaxy Watch, 2018 smart TVs and Family Hub refrigerator.

Gradually, Bixby has become more than a smart sidekick.

"Now it's not just about being a different [user interface] helper," Milanesi said. "It's about being a full-blown assistant."

An intelligent future

Samsung may be building Bixby's capabilities, but its best bet could be to focus on specific uses instead of being everything for everyone, analysts said. That could mean targeting the automotive sector through its Harman business, which is a key auto supplier. Or it could home in on appliances , languages or other areas where it has an edge over rivals, said IHS Markit analyst Blake Kozak.

"Samsung is likely too late to the market to compete with the infrastructure and breadth of Google and Amazon," he said. "Instead [it] should become a specialist or at least the de facto standard for Samsung devices."


Samsung hasn't yet started selling its Bixby-enabled Galaxy Home smart speaker. 

Sarah Tew/CNET

Samsung also needs to make multiple versions of its Galaxy Home speaker, analysts said. Its first version is likely to be pricey, but the company also should make versions that cost $40 and less -- cheap enough to compete with the Amazon Echo Dot and Google Home .

Even though it may be behind, Samsung's not giving up on Bixby. Over the past year, it's opened seven AI research centers around the globe, including in the US, South Korea and Russia, to make its digital assistant smarter. It 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.

"We are a device company," Samsung Consumer Electronics CEO Kim Hyun-suk said in May. "The rules of the game are different. It's not right to see it as a matter of being early or late."  

Overall, Samsung "aims to develop a highly personalized, multidevice platform that empowers people to accomplish more in their lives," it said in a press release announcing a new AI center in October. 

Now it just has to hope developers -- and users -- get on board.

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