Per Bloomberg, Samsung is planning on rolling out its own smart speakers in the first half of 2018, shipping them with its homegrown AI assistant, Bixby. The speaker will cost $200 and focus on audio quality. It will also feature touchscreen controls.
For those keeping count, that would make for five major players making smart speakers for the home: Amazon’s Alexa, Google’s Home, Microsoft’s Harman Kardon Invoke, Apple’s (now delayed) HomePod speaker, and now Samsung.
Samsung has one advantage over its four competitors: It makes a huge range of appliances and devices for the home, from TVs to dishwashers. It’s also been early in the smart-home space, buying up SmartThings in 2014 and folding it into the well-reviewed Samsung SmartThings hub.
But the more I use different smart speakers, the more I realize how important the “smart” part is, and how ultimately unimportant the “speaker” part is. The Echo became a runaway hit, despite having so-so sound, and I still use the original version in my home without complaint. I’ve tested a number of other smart speakers that sound pretty good, but the most important part, when you’re using a speaker that you primarily interact with purely through voice, is that the AI assistant needs to be rock-solid.
Samsung’s AI assistant, Bixby, in my experience, does not clear that bar. At least as I’ve used it on a Samsung S8 Plus and a Samsung Note 8; it lags considerably behind every other competitor I’ve tried, both in speech recognition and overall functionality. Samsung may be trying to hedge all of this with a built-in touchscreen, which gives another avenue to interact with a device if Bixby biffs something, but the whole point of smart speakers is being able to just talk and have it work 95 percent of the time. If I’m constantly having to walk away from the stove because Bixby can’t understand what playlist I want to listen to, it’s a poor smart speaker.
Samsung has made it clear that it’s backing Bixby for the long haul (even if it reluctantly allowed Samsung phone owners to disable the dedicated Bixby button on their phones). It’ll continue to pour resources into it, and with enough training, Bixby could absolutely improve. And Samsung may be putting out the speaker more as a bid for the Asian market than for North America (Bixby was originally rolled out and tested using Korean phone owners).
But the smart-speaker wars are going to be a zero-sum game. Whoever controls the main way to interact with homes increasingly filled with connected devices will have tremendous power. To do that, you need something smarter than Bixby is right now.