Unveiled last week, Samsung’s new Galaxy S8 has many new features its top-of-the-line competitors don’t: bezel-free screen, Bluetooth 5.0, an OLED screen that looks better than 95 percent of TVs available on the market. But it also has something they all do: a voice assistant.
Meet Bixby, Samsung’s new voice assistant (or, as they’re technically known, intelligent personal assistant). Previous Samsung phones used S Voice, a voice assistant that was little loved and annoying to use (and, indeed, was outclassed by Google itself toward the end of its life cycle).
Bixby is Samsung’s attempt to start fresh. It will, ostensibly, one day let you do anything with voice you can do with touch (right now, that’s limited to ten or so Android apps and some basic phone functions). Bixby also has visual search, which lets you point your phone’s camera at something and get information about it, whether that’s where to buy a dress or information about the Flatiron Building; Bixby will also perform “passive” artificial intelligence, using what it knows about your schedule and location to provide information before you even ask for it. (Is traffic going to suck on the route to pick kids up from school? Bixby will let you know.) And you can use Bixby to control various smart objects in your home, whether that’s dimming the lights before movie night, or gradually waking the house up by turning on your coffee maker and your favorite radio station.
But I wonder about Bixby. Google Assistant promised to be a game changer, but I’ve been using a Pixel XL for half a year now, and use it mainly to set timers and alarm clocks. I’ve used it occasionally to send texts (something I’d imagine I’d use a lot more if I drove on any regular basis), but for the most part, Google Assistant goes unused and unspoken to.
Siri was a minor sensation when it first launched on phones — I eagerly upgraded my own iPhone in 2012 because I was moving to L.A., and figured being able to ask for directions or send a text on the go would be helpful while driving. But Siri was less than advertised, so text messages were hilariously garbled, and map directions (especially via the still-buggy Apple Maps) were often less helpful than just relying on the fact that the highways always sucked and side streets were the way to go anywhere, so Siri quickly became another voice assistant I just stopped talking to.
But in the six years since voice assistants have hit the scene, from Siri to Bixby, they’ve stopped really being about your smartphone. (And, in the case of Amazon’s Echo, stopped being about your phone at all.) Oh, sure, they’re all still information devices — any of the options listed above will tell you what time the Cubs play the Cardinals today, or how the weather is going to look for today or tomorrow, or when the next showing of The Boss Baby will play at the local multiplex.
But the sense I get talking to various people in industry is that the true promise for tech companies and voice assistants isn’t in being a walking, talking information directory. Instead, it’s about the industry’s strong belief that the smart home, despite slow adoption rates, is coming — and that the smart home is going to need a voice operating system, one that can understand and respond primarily via voice commands. Ask anyone who uses an Echo or Google Home on a regular basis — having to go back to pulling your phone out of your pocket just to check the weather can suddenly feel like a chore. Just writing out these examples makes me cringe with first-world privilege, but it’s true! I would much rather bug Alexa about playing WNYC in the morning, or finding out if the Mets won last night (they did not), than doing any of those things from my smartphone. Now imagine that same feeling, but for turning off your lights, or locking your doors, or closing the shades. Speech, now that voice recognition has hit a certain level of competence, is simply a more frictionless way to interact with your devices, particularly when you’re busy doing other things, like making dinner or taking care of kids.
Samsung has made no secret that it wants to be at the center of the smart-home revolution. Unlike Google or Apple or Amazon, Samsung also produces refrigerators and washing machines and microwaves, and has been pushing the Samsung Smart Things Hub for years, a way to get your Samsung fridge and dishwasher and oven talking to each other and on the same page. It didn’t gain as much notice as the new Galaxy S8, but Samsung is quietly releasing its own set of mesh Wi-Fi routers to compete with things like Eero, Luma, and Google Wifi — and each will also work as a Samsung Smart Thing Hub. Samsung is also seemingly ready to really open up its ecosystem to third-party appliance makers, seeing how quickly Amazon’s Alexa and Apple’s HomeKit have taken the world by storm.
There’s one final piece of the smart-home puzzle. When I talk to people who actually make devices for the smart home, most will quietly admit that the average consumer is not installing a smart lock on their front door, or ripping out and replacing their existing thermostat. When the smart-home revolution comes, it will be done by a few very techy DIYers, but mainly by home contractors who are increasingly being asked to either upgrade existing homes to include smart functionality, or are building new homes whole cloth with smart features built in.
But to control all those Neato functions will mean you need something to talk to. The consumer choice, in other words, will not be between which smart-home-security system to install, but how they control that home-security system. And so Samsung’s Bixby, Apple’s Siri and HomeKit, Google’s Assistant and Home, and, of course, the Amazon Echo would all like to be that thing you talk to. It’s not a market that lends itself to fragmentation — I don’t want my washing machine using Bixby, but my home-security system running off Alexa — so all of these companies know that competition will be tight, and losers will be squeezed out. And the sooner you start feeling comfortable talking to your device, the better chance that company has at being the one that eventually welcomes you home each evening.