Neither T-Mobile nor Samsung immediately responded to a request for comment.
It’s not yet clear if a similar update will come to the Verizon, Sprint, and AT&T versions of the Galaxy S8. Sprint declined to comment. Verizon and AT&T did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Nevertheless, the update continues a months-long back and forth between Samsung, which has struggled to get Bixby off the ground in the US, and hardcore Galaxy S8 owners, many of whom have expressed frustration over their devices having a dedicated physical button with limited functionality.
To recap, Samsung released the Galaxy S8 in the US in late April. One of its leading features was intended to be Bixby, a voice assistant in the vein of Apple’s Siri and Amazon’s Alexa, except with a focus on helping users get around the various functions of their phone. The company was so eager to have people use Bixby that it added a button to the side of the Galaxy S8 that’s explicitly designed to launch the assistant.
However, Samsung was unable to get Bixby's voice recognition system ready in time for the Galaxy S8’s US launch. (Other features, like a “Bixby Vision” tool that can identify real-world objects and display corresponding info onscreen, have been available.) Months later, Bixby still has not been rolled out to Galaxy S8 devices beyond a limited “early access” program. The Wall Street Journal reported in May that the delay was due in part to Samsung struggling to get Bixby to fully comprehend English.
In response to all of this, various software developers have built workarounds that effectively allow the Galaxy S8’s Bixby button to open other apps and perform other functions. For instance, a Galaxy S8 owner could have the button activate Google Assistant, Google’s voice helper that is baked into every Android phone by default. The first of these shortcuts popped up prior to the phone’s release, but Samsung said it disabled that shortly thereafter. That led to the current crop of Bixby remapping apps available in the Google Play Store today.
With its latest update, Samsung appears to be hitting back again. Of course, Samsung is not the first company to patch an unintended workaround — far from it — and it's still possible to disable the Bixby button entirely. In general, we still consider the Galaxy S8 one of the better phones available. In general, Samsung’s desire to make Bixby a stong platform (at a time where voice assistants are expected to be the next dominant interface) is understandable. The WSJ recently reported that the company is even planning a Bixby-powered smart speaker.
But it seems safe to say that tethering the Galaxy S8 to a button that’s borderline useless to many users isn’t doing Bixby’s reputation any favors. Given that Android is an operating system known for its customizability, it’s hard to call this a pro-consumer move as well. And despite Samsung's updates, it may only be a matter of time before developers find another way to let Galaxy S8 owners use their hardware however they’d like.