After months of delays, Samsung started rolling out its homegrown digital assistant Bixby to Galaxy S8 phones in the US on Wednesday.
The launch itself was already a blunder. Samsung started hyping Bixby before the Galaxy S8 even launched and even put a dedicated button for the assistant on the side of the phone.
Shortly after that, it had to delay Bixby's launch until after the S8's launch in April. Then it delayed Bixby again until the summer.
So now that Bixby is here, is it any good? And, more importantly, how does Bixby fit into the crowded assistant space?
Here's are some quick thoughts:
Bixby is too late
Developing a digital assistant from the ground up in 2017 is a mistake. Google, Apple, Amazon, and Microsoft all have huge head starts on Samsung, and they have greater influence to build an ecosystem around each one. Good luck getting a significant number of developers to make their apps work with a digital assistant that only works with one phone model in one country.
It's also pretty dumb
Bixby is mostly designed to control your phone's functions, not answer questions. But that's not how we've been trained to use assistants over the years. Many queries to Bixby usually kick you into a list of Google search results, which isn't helpful at all.
It competes with Google's Assistant, which is also on the Galaxy S8
Of all the big tech companies, I consider Google the leader when it comes to machine learning, voice recognition, and AI. Those happen to be the ingredients that make a great assistant, which is why Google Assistant was so good right out of the gate.
Like all newer Android phones, the Galaxy S8 also has Google Assistant, which risks confusing users. It would've been smarter for Samsung to emphasize something that works instead of developing Bixby.
There's no need to control basic phone functions with your voice
Is holding down a button and saying, "Turn down the volume" easier than just pressing the volume keys on your phone?
But Samsung designed Bixby precisely for functions like that. Bluetooth, WiFi, brightness, etc. are all controlled with your voice and Bixby. It's not easier or faster in most cases. In fact, I've found I often have to wait an extra beat for Bixby to simply process the request before something happens. This is a solution in search of a problem.
But voice commands are nice in some apps
Bixby only works with Samsung's native apps for phone calls, texting, reminders, emails, etc., and a handful of third-party apps like Gmail and Twitter. I've found it works well for the most part. I really liked the Google Maps integration. (Example: "Use Google maps to navigate home.") It's easier and faster than opening the app, typing an address, and then pressing the navigate button.
But like I said earlier, there's a slim chance enough developers will add Bixby to their apps when it's limited to just one device in one country right now.
It'll get better. Maybe.
Bixby can and will get better. The more people who use it, the more Samsung can train it to do the right thing. In fact, Samsung seems to be incentivizing S8 owners to use Bixby by offering rewards. Weird.
Samsung also owns a technology called Viv, which was developed by the same people who made Siri. Viv is reportedly pretty good, and will eventually be rolled into Bixby. There's a (small) chance Bixby can improve enough to take on the established competitors. But for now, it's half-baked.