Even though it’s one of the largest electronics firms in the world, Samsung doesn’t have a storied history of leading the way in the phone world.
I’m not talking about the innovative hardware it develops internally – the constantly-impressive Super AMOLED screens that adorn its top-end phones are testament to that ability – but rather its modest record when it comes to defining the ‘next chapter’ in mobile.
So when I read that Samsung was developing its own AI assistant last year, one to rival Apple’s Siri, Microsoft’s Cortana and Amazon’s Alexa, it felt very much like a case of ‘me too’. Samsung saw what its competitors had, and wanted in.
But now we know more about Bixby – and it’s going to have a very prominent place on the forthcoming Galaxy S8 in the shape of a dedicated Bixby key.
That’s the first dangerous move: in a world where high-end phones are homogenizing in terms of features, there’s going to be intense scrutiny from both tech watchers and the wider media as to whether Bixby is a game-changer, not the potential of such a platform – and if Samsung’s AI play isn’t amazing from the outset then the reception from the public is likely to be dismissive.
So why is Samsung bothering at all? It must have a great reason, because Bixby feels rushed out right now. The South Korean brand only purchased Viv, the AI platform created by a few of the founders of Siri, in October last year, and Samsung doesn’t seem to be too bullish about what Bixby will be able to do at launch.
In fact, all the launch language seems to be about the future: how Samsung ‘plans’ to have an SDK that third-party developers will be able to use; how Bixby will ‘gradually’ be integrated with other appliances like air conditioners and TVs.
Even the example of how it will be used on the smartphone, clearly the primary focus for Bixby within Samsung (given it was the mobile division that bought Viv, and the focus on that segment throughout Bixby’s launch) was diluted: being able to make a call by pressing a button and speaking, rather than having to navigate through multiple menus.
That doesn’t seem at all futuristic or helpful when I can literally do that with an iPhone or Google Assistant-enabled phone… and I don’t even need to press a button.
Going head to head with Google
That idea of Samsung playing a dangerous game comes to the fore again when you consider that Bixby will be in direct competition with Google Assistant.
This seems reminiscent of a time a few years ago when Samsung was putting significant weight behind its own services: Samsung Music, Samsung Video and its own apps portal, along with a competitor OS to Android in the shape of Tizen, which threatened the dominance of Google’s platform.
The worry was that so few people were aware that their phone was powered by Android that Samsung could just switch to its own Tizen platform, complete with an app and content store, and Google would lose its biggest customer.
However, a truce was brokered between the two, and now we see phones clearly badged as ‘powered by Android’, Samsung’s services have been shuttered, and Tizen is limited to TVs and smartwatches.
And that’s what Bixby looks like right now – a bargaining chip in the game of big-brand brinksmanship, one that will enable Samsung to strike a better deal during the next round of partnership negotiations.
This idea explains a lot: why Samsung wants to get such a platform out there before it seems ready, testing it in the market rather than bringing it out fully-baked and landing on watches, TVs and fridges as well as adding functionality to multiple apps on the phone, both native and third-party.
However, just because it’s perhaps early in its life cycle, that doesn’t mean Bixby will be a poor attempt at AI – Samsung has clearly been working on such a service for a long time before it bought Viv, and that platform has been dubbed an improvement on Siri,
According to research by performance-based marketing platform Fluent, 77% of consumers either don’t care which AI their phone is running care, whether that’s Apple’s Home, Google’s Home, Amazon’s Alexa or Samsung’s SmartThings – so eventually all of the brands making hardware in the internet of things space will have to sign up.
Even if Samsung hasn’t become the main player in the AI assistant space – which is possible, given how far behind its competitors it is (unless it’s ) – its size means it’ll have something to offer a potential partner, rather than just having to kowtow to whatever the dominant platform provider wants.
This could be good news for those who just want a decent phone, and don’t care about the machinations behind the scenes. Samsung will be forced to provide some attractive innovation on its AI platform, to offer something different to push machine-learning platforms forward.
Let’s just hope Bixby sits quietly on the side of Galaxy S8, slowly gathering connections with other apps, rather than turning out to be a messy, conflicting AI nuisance that messes with Google Assistant.