I’ve spent a while reviewing the Samsung Galaxy S8, and I still feel like I’m missing something, like there’s a locked door I’ve not been able to knock through.
It’s enough to drive a phone reviewer crazy. All we want to do is explain a possible purchase for you in the clearest terms possible, but with Samsung I feel like there’s an unanswered question swirling around inside: what on earth is going on with Bixby? Why put something so seemingly pointless in such a prominent place on the phone?
As you’ll see from our Samsung Galaxy S8 review, the kindest way I can describe it right now is utterly unimpressive. Bixby Vision is laughably useless, Bixby Reminders is the digital equivalent of a shrug… great, another app that I can pop notifications in.
Bixby Home, the dedicated screen that pops up whenever I press the button on the left side of the phone, has become a permanent enemy. The card-based content is fine - bordering on useful - but it inexplicably takes a few seconds to load.
And don’t get me started on the fact I keep accidentally pressing the Bixby button when I keep meaning to turn the volume down. It’s maddening.
Basically, Bixby has all the hallmarks of something that was rolled out too early.
It feels like an internal decision at Samsung where someone decided the brand needed its own artificially intelligent assistant on its phones and waiting until the Galaxy S9 (or even the Note 8) would be too long.
Coming to just 10 native apps at launch? That’s not the move of a brand that’s going all in on something game changing.
A marathon, not a sprint
Samsung’s president of mobile communications DJ Koh - while he was talking about the task Samsung faced internally, it’s an apt description of the world Bixby is trying to barrel into.
Bixby is the runner that’s just stripping off at the start when it competitors are already 3 miles up the road. The race isn’t over, but it has a hell of a lot of distance to cover just to catch up… and it’s not even started running.
There’s good reason to think Bixby is unimpressive. The buzzwords around it at launch were ‘frictionless’ and ‘contextual’, a service devised from the notion that humans shouldn’t have to learn a bunch of highly-specific phrases just to make their phone do something.
And yet at the launch, that’s exactly what was shown off. ‘What’s the weather like in London?’ ‘Call Chris’ and checking out what wine was on display through the camera. All cool features… around half a decade ago.
We’ve got Google Assistant, Siri and Alexa. There’s no room for a ‘me-too’ service from Samsung, especially given its S Voice tried to compete with Apple faded away quietly years ago.
If you’re waiting for the punchline to this piece, here it is: Bixby might actually become the best artificially intelligent assistant out there.
Sure, the demonstration I had was mediocre, but after the launch I spoke to Kyle Brown, head of technology, content and launch management at Samsung.
Brown is a man I’ve spoken to on multiple occasions about Samsung’s phone strategy throughout the years, and he speaks candidly and with real passion about certain features of past flagship devices.
So when he tells me he really believes that Bixby is the future of AI assistants, and the demo I write about dismissively wasn’t representative, I’m inclined to trust him.
“To be completely honest, Bixby is, by far, my favorite thing about the [Galaxy] S8. I’ve been working with it in the office, and I was heartbroken when I read [your summary],’ he said.
He told me that Bixby would learn, that Samsung would innovate and develop the service quickly. Usually I’d dismiss that as marketing spiel, a brand trying to create headlines around a feature that was too far behind the competition to stay relevant.
But if someone like Brown is so effusive about a feature, I feel it’s not fair to write it off just yet - Samsung just needs to prove that it can do something genuinely game-changing, rather than just promising it.
It’s easy to say ‘Oh, Bixby will become great because a brand like Samsung has the resources to make it that.’
Apple is hardly resource-poor, but Siri isn’t the world-beating voice assistant I expected yet.
So is Bixby really that far behind the competition? Most of us would admit that we rarely use our phone’s voice control (other than to set a timer or ask how old a celebrity is) because we’re not sure whether what we say will work and we’ll look foolish.
The reason Amazon’s Alexa, and the Echo that houses it, is so popular is because it understands natural language incredibly well - but that’s mostly locked to a single device with a limited range of functions. More are coming, but it’s not got an unassailable lead.
Samsung’s aim is grand, but doesn’t seem impossible: to allow voice, touch and vision to combine and create a true assistant.
Something that functions exactly like a digital PA, where if you say ‘Email my wife to ask if she can send the boarding passes for the flight next week, and then send it to the printer when she replies’ it’ll do just that.
That’s the context Samsung is aiming for: where Bixby can work across multiple apps and devices, where anything with a connection and a voice input circuit can work together.
I’m almost certain the Bixby on the Galaxy S8 will remain a non-event, and the dedicated hardware button was a mistake. It’s just too early in the life of the service to need a dedicated key.
I get that we’re in a chicken and egg situation. Samsung needs awareness to attract users, who in turn pull in developers who want to use Bixby to make money.
To start that cycle, Bixby needs a push and having a dedicated button certainly keeps it front and center. It just doesn’t work well enough to be something people enjoy using yet, and consumers have a very limited patience threshold when it comes to trying new things on phones.
So what reason do we have to believe Bixby could be a success? Injong Rhee, head of R&D and the guy at Samsung tasked with making Bixby a hit, envisions a future where Bixby and Google work together seamlessly, handing off to one another when needed (kind of in the same way your real-life personal assistant might be secretly Googling in his pocket when you ask him a question he can’t answer).
That future would see the power of Google Assistant combined with Samsung’s Bixby, the latter a more personal and offline service that exists as more of a friend than a service.
Working with Google would see Samsung handle the offline stuff around the house while harnessing the colossal cloud power from the search giant, rather than trying to rival it.
That’s something that could work.
But, ultimately, Samsung needs to start making good on that promise, rather than launching a seemingly massive feature on one of the world’s hottest phones and just filling it with meaningless buzzwords. For crying out loud, it doesn't even have voice control yet. It's 2017.
So while we shouldn’t dismiss Bixby just yet as bloatware on a very expensive phone, Samsung needs to act quickly if it’s to make us believe it could be a success.
- Want to see how Bixby fares in real life? Check out our Samsung Galaxy S8 review