Yesterday, a report from Bloomberg came out saying that Samsung will launch a Bixby-powered smart speaker sometime in the first half of 2018. This really shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone since DJ Koh already told CNBC back in August that the company was indeed trying to put its digital assistant, which first debuted on the Galaxy S8, into a smart speaker. The timeline is pretty obvious too; I’m betting that Samsung will unveil the device at Mobile World Congress 2018 in late February before putting it on sale sometime in the spring or early summer.
The bigger question is why the hell would anyone want a Bixby speaker? As countless Twitter users and internet commenters have so eloquently stated: Bixby sucks. Ok, that’s not really fair, but it’s true that Samsung has yet to prove why people should care about Bixby more than Alexa, Siri or the Google Assistant. Right now, Bixby can only be found on the Galaxy S8 or Note 8, and Samsung didn’t do its users any favors when it added an extra button to its flagship devices, whose sole purpose is to communicate with an assistant that no one asked for.
As someone with an S8, a Google Home, and an Echo Dot, I have near constant access to their respective digital assistants, and Bixby is by far the one I use the least. However, Bixby isn’t totally without its merits, as it can do things the other assistants can’t. While both Bixby and the Google Assistant can open apps or change settings using voice commands, Bixby can understand complex compound commands such as “Post the last photo I took to Instagram.” And that’s not all, because you can also tell Bixby what to write in the caption, all in a single request. That said, Bixby still needs a lot of polishing, as much of its support for third-party apps is still under development, and many less popular apps aren’t supported outside of simple open and close commands.
But putting Bixby in a speaker could be a whole different story. That’s because out of Google, Amazon, Apple, Microsoft and anyone else with a digital assistant, Samsung is the only company that makes refrigerators, washing machines, robo vacs, and other major household appliances, not to mention the 160+ compatible devices that work with the company’s SmartThings home automation platform. Samsung doesn’t need to work with GE, Whirpool or anything other company, it could connect all that shit together by itself, while becoming the company closest delivering a top-to-bottom full-on smart house.
Imagine a world where you could be at a grocery store, figuring out what you’re going to stuff your face with later this week, when you realize you can’t remember if you have eggs, milk, butter or any other basic staples. No problem, all you have to do is ask Bixby to look inside your fridge and check what’s there. Then Bixby could ping your wi-fi connected fridge with the camera inside (which Samsung already makes) and let you take a peek inside or use image recognition to tell you what stuff you have. Or how about asking Bixby to start a wash and let it soak a little longer, so you don’t have to figure out which stupid dial you need to turn. Samsung already makes almost all of your household devices that you’d like to smarten up, they just need to be connected together and orchestrated with a little AI assistance.
In other words, Samsung is in a lot of ways perfectly situated to be the smart speaker we all want. The real challenge for Samsung isn’t putting Bixby in a speaker, it’s overcoming the fact that Amazon and Google have are way ahead. Samsung really should’ve put smart assistant in its SmartThings hub long ago. People don’t want another nondescript box whose only purpose is to connect their devices. We already have them, they’re called routers. What we really want is a device that helps us make sense of everything, and lets us interact with them without pulling out our phones every time we want to turn on a light or needing to program our complexIFTTT regimes. That’s what an Amazon Echo or Google Home offers, they are the hub that makes home automation less obnoxious to deal with. If the Bixby speaker is going to succeed, Samsung is now in a position where it needs to convince people to trade in an Echo or Home and getting used to a new voice in their home.
If this was Apple, with its rabid base of deeply integrated products, I could see it. But even when the HomePod finally arrives, the Siri ecosystem will still be way behind everyone else. In the case of Samsung, I’m not sure this is a battle it can win. The pieces are there, but Samsung might not put them together until it’s too late.