Bixby: Has Samsung Already Lost The Digital Assistant Race?

Amazon’s Alexa, the mighty Apple’s Siri and Google’s search-tactics Assistant need no introduction. Even Microsoft’s Cortana is reasonably well-known.

How about Samsung’s Bixby, though?

While Samsung exerts a strong presence in the smart technology sector, Bixby is something of a flawed gem. Today, we’ll look at the good and bad points of this digital assistant, more a work-in-progress than a finished masterpiece.

Before we look further into the question of whether or not Samsung has lost the digital assistant race already with the jauntily-named Bixby, a brief bit of background.

Who Is Bixby?

Bixby is Samsung’s AI voice assistant revealed at the launch of the S8 in March 2017 in New York.

The English language voice activated part of Bixby was delayed until June that year after earlier debuting in Korea.

What differentiates Bixby is that the underlying aim is to allow you to get things done on your phone completely hands-free. As an example, if you wanted to play a video, Google Assistant will simply provide web search results rather than opening the Photos app. Siri will open the app for you first but then ask you to select the video. With Bixby, simply ask for the Samsung Gallery to be opened and the newest video to be played then you’re immediately in business.

Samsung should be commended for attempting to bridge the gap between what we’d like our digital assistants to do and what they’re actually capable of.

This is at least a partial success with most commands successfully executed. The Teach Me function helps you submit misunderstood words to Samsung so they can hone Bixby’s comprehension. You won’t be able to teach Bixby directly, though. You can suggest alternatives to command phrases in your Account History but, again, there’s no scope to set Bixby straight in the event of incorrectly executed directives.

We’ll delve a little deeper into the basics of Bixby after a brief detour into the name itself…

The Problem With Bixby’s Name

As you know, Samsung is a South Korean company and Bixby presents a problem for Koreans in that the “x” in its name sounds phonetically like a “k” followed by an “s”. Throw in the “b” that follows and you’ve got a cluster of 3 consonants that speakers of many languages struggle with.

From Mitsubishi’s 1980s Starion (reputedly “stallion” mispronounced) to the Chevy Nova (sounds like “doesn’t go” in Spanish) right up to Siri (sounds like the Japanese word for butt), history is littered with unfortunate brand names that somehow worked out just fine for the manufacturer.

What Devices Use Bixby?

Where Google Assistant crosses devices, Bixby is only available on Samsung hardware. Launched on the Galaxy S8, you can now find Bixby on the S9 and S9 Plus and also the Galaxy Note 8. Although the digital assistant also crops up on Note FE, there’s no dedicated button.

Aside from Family Hub 2.0 fridges and a bare handful of other devices, Bixby’s reach is still pretty limited. (We’ll probe the Galaxy Home smart speaker in due course.)

Bixby: The Basics

While Bixby packs most of the features you’ll get with Alexa, Siri and Google Assistant, Samsung wanted to change the way you interact with your digital butler. The key difference is that Samsung’s stated intention is to make Bixby far more about controlling your phone hands-free than providing search assistance.

That said, in terms of providing general information like the weather or currency exchange rates, Bixby is a nimble and highly capable assistant.

There are 3 core components to Bixby which we’ll look at in a little more detail directly:

• Vision
• Voice
• Home

While on the surface it might seem reckless for Samsung to enter the digital assistant fray to a single device family, that would assume Bixby is aiming to perform the same role as the competition. That’s really not the case. Rather than acting as a raw search tool, the intention is for the 3 areas above to work harmoniously and change the way you use your smartphone. This differentiation is what might help Bixby in the long haul even if it’s taking a while to get traction.

Most commands start with Open although you can sidestep this with more direct commands. Bixby can deal with more complex commands than Google Assistant or Siri and it’s certainly cutting down on manual actions, too.

One of the inbuilt problems with the crowded digital assistant market, though, is the speed at which the competition reverse-engineer then replicate innovative features. Whenever one brand surges ahead, the other titans soon hit back, often harder and with more success.

That said, the way in which Samsung has Bixby trying to anticipate what you need and to serve up contextualized reminders means this AI is at least trying to stand out from the crowd.

Language support is limited to English, Korean and simplified Mandarin.

To start using Bixby on enabled devices, you can press the Bixby button, swipe straight to Bixby Home, hold down the Home key or pop something in front of the camera.

From app opening to screenshots, adding cards to Samsung Pay to scanning QR codes, Bixby is a strong workhorse. In the revamped 2.0 form, the AI is also becoming more conversational, can make recommendations based on previous searches and can deal with follow-up commands more easily.

We’ll look now at the Holy Trinity of Vision, Voice and Home so you can see whether Bixby has enough to offer to tempt you…

Bixby Vision

Bixby Vision is all about making your camera more useful.

Photo recognition technology comes in extremely handy if you’re trying to work out what a menu means when you’re trying to decipher signs or menus abroad. You’ll also be able to identify buildings and tourist spots.

You’ll get 8 modes with Bixby Vision:

Food: Whether you want to check up on how many calories that double cheeseburger is packing or discover if eggs Benedict really are a healthy option, this is a utilitarian feature perfect for foodies or anyone on a diet
Image: Bixby can swiftly locate images similar to those you’ve photographed
Makeup: It’s not always practical to go shopping and physically try on makeup. Do so from the comfort of home and let Bixby show you how you would look with this virtual makeup function
Place: From telling you what a particular building or landmark is to breaking down opening and closing times, this is another handy application of Bixby setting it apart from the opposition. Place uses FourSquare for this information
QR Codes: If you frequently scan QR codes and you’re tired of always opening the app, Bixby streamlines things for you a treat
Shopping: Picture hunting through a market and finding something but then entering into a haggling match where the seller just won’t budge. Or hunting through a clothing store and finding something you love but in the wrong size completely. Bixby can help you by directing you toward an online seller with the same or similar product
Text: This translation tool is a hidden gem and invaluable for frequent travelers who don’t want to laboriously search. Simply take a snap and the words are converted pretty neatly into the editable text
Wine: If your wine waiter is less than helpful, Bixby can step in offering up reviews and suggestions of which dishes the wine works best with

We’ll be clear that not all these areas work seamlessly and some are region specific. Bixby is certainly heading down the right path with Vision and it’s a nice attempt to rival Google Lens. Much more work needs to be done, though. It’s currently beneficial and frustrating in equal measure and that’s the recipe to stop using a digital assistant and revert to manual methods.

Bixby Voice

It’s Bixby Voice where Samsung delivers in fine style. Where others voice assistants force you to adapt to them, Bixby adapts to the way you speak which is the way things should be.

You can be pretty flexible with commands rather than limited to specific pre-sets. Whether you ask, “What’s the weather like today?” or “Show me the weather forecast” Bixby will pick up on variations where other AIs are a lot more narrow-minded.

Software is easy to install and there’s a short, sweet tutorial containing some nice nuggets for beginners.

In line with the hands-free ethos, you can say “Hey, Bixby” to initiate Voice if you don’t want to hit the button. If you’re messaging on Samsung’s native apps, you can have your messages read out to you, ideal if you’re walking and don’t want to waste precious time or bump into the person in front of you.

You might have noticed that where we refer to Alexa as she, we’ve used it throughout for Bixby. This is not bowing to political correctness but rather because you can switch genders at will when you’re using Voice.

If you often use lengthy commands, you can customize Bixby by shortening these into something more snappy and manageable. It’s this little touches that make a surprisingly big difference.

While you can send messages on the native messaging app, you can also use commands with the settings, dialer, contacts, gallery, and camera app. From the pure basics through to opening apps with split-screen view, performing photo editing and grouping then sharing photos, functionality is surprisingly robust.

With support for more than 3000 commands and with constant improvements being made, whether you want to navigate Facebook or YouTube, Gmail or Google Maps, Bixby lets you do so hands-free and with a remarkable degree of success.

Bixby Home

Bixby Home is the final piece of the puzzle and this sits, appropriately, on the home screen. In Samsung’s own words, Home acts as a “social media stream” for your enabled device.

This strand is far more limited and it’s pretty much like HTC Blinkfeed or Google Feed. From reminders to your social media updates, you can tweak Home so it only shows the information you’re actually interested in. After all, there’s nothing worse than being bombarded with an overload of irrelevant content.

You can also customize the layout of these Home Cards so you can order them according to your usage. Cards can also be dismissed or deleted if you don’t want them, pinned if you want them ready to roll.

Taking props from routines in smart homes, you can also issue a single command like “I’m going to sleep” in order to trigger a chain of events.

As with all elements of Bixby, third-party services supporting Bixby continue to swell. It might not have the magnetic draw of Alexa, but savvy manufacturers are realizing the utility of playing ball with Samsung.

Like we mentioned straight from the get-go, Bixby is an ever-evolving assistant. With increasing intelligence, it will soon be able to adapt to your routine and phone usage to deliver an enhanced experience.

Bixby In a Samsung Smart Home

Bixby is restricted in terms of its direct application within a smart home. It’s much more of a personal assistant than a dedicated digital butler for your connected home.

Samsung’s Galaxy Home smart speaker is powered by Bixby.

You can also use your assistant with Samsung Smart TVs, the Family Hub line of refrigerators and a scattering of IoT devices.

Bixby’s natural habitat, though, is a Samsung handset. While this might very well change, don’t for a moment expect the agile applications in a smart home setting the other digital assistants are capable of. If you have plenty of SmartThings devices, Bixby is worthwhile, if not then you’re out of luck.

For now.

Why Are Smart Tech Brands Running The Digital Assistant Race At All?

A question we often get asked here at Smart Home is why the major manufacturers place so much stock on smart speakers and digital assistants in the first place. After all, even allowing for the volume of sales, they’re so cheap as to generate relatively little profit in and of themselves.

The answer is that it’s all about the long game…

Sometimes sold as loss leaders or literally given away, both Amazon and Google are reputed to have lost money on smart speakers over the holiday season. The underlying intention is not altruism but hooking potential customers into their ecosystem.

Despite the many limitations and frustrations of Bixby which we’ve made no attempt to gloss over, Samsung has certainly locked things down to keep users hungry for more smart devices and appliances from their own ecosystem. Where Google wants you to build your whole digital life around their ecosystem, Apple want you as a lifelong customer across all devices, and Amazon are all about sales and recurring memberships, Samsung is focusing on Bixby to entice you into using SmartThings devices so in many ways this is a clever pivot rather than a misguided strategy. Their stated goal in a 2017 financial report was to drive new AI/IoT businesses by “strengthening the ecosystem” with Bixby as the backbone.

So, from the appliances and devices already available to AI-gadgets of the future, Samsung is perhaps one step ahead of the game rather than lagging behind.

What’s The Future of Bixby?

As with any predictions in the world of tech, we can only really speculate.

There’s no doubt that Bixby has severe limitations right now and that it certainly carries none of the weight of the competition. Be honest, it would be hard to find anyone unaware of Alexa or Siri whereas Bixby has nothing like the name recognition or reach right now.

But, if you take a step back and cast your eye over the bigger picture, we have to say that Bixby is by no means a dead duck and the future might well show that Samsung hasn’t missed the mark after all. But only time will tell whether it goes the way of MySpace or thrives and becomes a serious thorn in the side of Google, Amazon, and Apple.

What’s the preferred digital assistant?

It all depends on preference. You can look into Amazon products like the echo dot or echo, and even Google Home.  These products are currently leading the race right now. However, if you would like more smart home news check out our blog today!