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July 7, 2017

Bixby, where are you?

by John_A

There’s plenty to love about the Galaxy S8 and S8 Plus, Samsung’s latest mobile darlings. The near edge-to-edge displays and luscious design give them a fit and finish few other flagships can match. And the performance and battery-life are nothing to sneeze at either. Yet, nearly three months after their initial launch, the phones are still missing a key feature: Bixby.

Samsung’s AI-powered voice assistant is nowhere to be seen. Seeing as the company is keen on making Bixby the center of its consumer universe, the missing voice assistant is more than just a mystery; it’s also a liability.

When Samsung showed off Bixby at the S8 launch event in March, it wowed the audience, and frankly, us. The company claimed that the voice interface was so intuitive that you could control the phones as effectively as you could with the touchscreen. That’s a lofty goal, and would make it even more powerful and more capable than Siri, Cortana and Google Assistant.

Bixby, it seems, can do more than just launch an app or check the weather. Bixby also promises to be contextually aware, potentially adding appointments and reminders without you having to do so manually. Plus, it wants to do all of it with natural language processing, so you don’t have to give perfect directions in order for it to work well.

If that all sounds too good to be true, well, maybe that’s because it is. When the phone launched, it was without Bixby Voice on board (though it still had Bixby Home, a home screen alternative to Google Home, and Bixby Vision, an augmented reality camera that can identify objects it captures). Instead, the company said that the voice assistant would arrive later than the actual hardware. From a company that usually has no problem churning out products, this seemed a little odd.

As the calendar flipped from April to May, Bixby still wasn’t ready. Apparently stymied by the complexities of the English language, Samsung just couldn’t get Bixby up to snuff. (It did, however, manage to get the Korean language version out the door in May). “Bixby Voice benefits from time to further enhance natural language understanding,” said a Samsung spokesperson to the Wall Street Journal at the time. Later in June, the company opened up an “early preview test” of Bixby so that it could give some users a taste of how it works, and also get a wider data sample.

Now it’s July, and it still doesn’t seem like Bixby is anywhere near done. As the Korea Herald puts it, Samsung just doesn’t have the “big data” necessary to have the AI up and running in languages other than Korean. The paper says that this is potentially due to geographical and linguistic barriers between Samsung’s Korean headquarters and the AI researchers in California. Considering Bixby’s lofty ambitions coupled with how difficult natural language processing is in the first place, those difficulties are not entirely surprising.

Yet, it’s a problem that Samsung should have foreseen. After all, this is a company that’s known for its innovation — it’s produced slim-yet-waterproof smartphones, next-gen smart watches and phone-powered VR headsets at a rapid pace, in many of those cases setting the stage for the rest of the industry. It’s not like the company has no experience ushering in technological wonders. Yes, it would be a newcomer to the AI space, but Samsung should have the resources available to tackle the issue head on.

Which is what makes the whole Bixby delay a little fishy. Something must have gone wrong somewhere. It seems as if Samsung bit off a little more than it could chew and just didn’t think an AI voice assistant would take as long as it did. This doesn’t just paint the S8 and the S8 Plus in a bad light, it also puts a serious damper on Samsung’s other products like the rumored smart speaker and the new Note coming up in September and any other smart-products — given Bixby will likely be the thread that ties them all together.

Considering the S8 was supposed to be Samsung’s redemption after last year’s Note debacle, overpromising and underdelivering is the wrong way to win customers back. If it ships Bixby in the next month or so, it could limit the damage. If it doesn’t, Samsung will need to really blow us away with the Note and its upcoming 2018 lineup while it figures Bixby out. The company delayed the S8 launch to deal with the Note’s battery issues and that appears to have panned out, so Samsung still has a chance to pull it out of the bag. But consumers only have so much patience left.

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