Samsung throws Bixby into mix, Amazon’s Alexa comes to Android

Samsung has confirmed the launch of its Bixby AI-powered digital assistant, ahead of its launch at the end of this month. Also this week, Amazon’s Alexa has made it to its first smartphone, the Huawei Mate 9 – however, its dual-app user experience is likely to prevent this being the Echo-style hit Amazon needs to assert itself in the mobile world at last.

Bixby stems from Viv Labs, a company that Samsung bought back in October, for an undisclosed price. Viv was led by Dag Kittlaus, a co-creator of Apple’s Siri who apparently founded Viv out of frustration with Apple’s limited ambition for Siri.

Currently, it supports eight languages – well ahead of Google Assistant’s support for only German and English, but noticeably behind Siri’s 36, although Siri is less contextually aware than Assistant. Conflicting information suggests that Bixby will only launch with English and Korean, before swiftly adding the others.

Samsung says Bixby has three main selling points: that it is a complete system, which doesn’t need to launch other applications to function; that it is contextually aware, allowing for better control of applications and responses to user commands or requests; and that it understands natural language usage, so users don’t have to learn an operational syntax.

The eventual goal for Bixby is to be able to do everything on a phone that a user could do themselves, using their fingers. The system has been designed so that it can recognize when it does not have enough input from the user to carry out a task, so that it can request more data instead of failing at the task, as the other digital assistants tend to do. This contextual understanding is a core component, and is intended to allow total control of the phone in multi-step operations.

A Bixby software developers’ kit (SDK) is on the way, which would allow application developers to incorporate the system into their own systems (both software and potentially hardware). In October, Samsung’s mobile division CTO, Injong Rhee, said that the Galaxy S8 would be a springboard for expanding Samsung’s AI tech into its other products – which include TVs and domestic appliances, as well as potentially is SmartThings smart home division.

It is also unclear whether Bixby will be introduced to older Samsung mobile devices, although Rhee, now head of R&D Software and Services, has said that if a device has an internet connection and a microphone, it will be able to connect to Bixby – or rather, the extensive back-end cloud systems that support it, as we are still a long way from having a system that could run on purely on the end-device.

Bixby will essentially replace Google Assistant in Samsung’s upcoming flagship phones, starting with the Galaxy S8 that is launching on March 28th. The new design will feature a dedicated button for Bixby, and will apparently enable users to issue commands without having to unlock the phone – for file retrieval, or dialing contacts, for example, as well as advanced camera tools that enable Bixby to carry out image recognition.

It’s not clear if Google Assistant, part of Android, will be on the new Galaxy S8, but the Android Assistant will also be facing pressure from Amazon’s Alexa, which has landed in its first Android phone – the Huawei Mate 9. Via an over-the-air update, US owners of Huawei’s newest flagship will find themselves with voice access to the thousands of Alexa skill (tools/abilities) that have cropped up around Amazon’s rather open ecosystem.

Unfortunately, while Alexa’s debut on a smartphone should be rather a big deal, it looks like a poor user experience is going to cripple it. Users will have to download both the Amazon Alexa application and the Huawei Alexa app, and will need to open Huawei Alexa each time they want to issue a voice command. It’s a similar story for the new Alexa iOS app, although it seems you only need one app for Apple’s platform.

In this current guise, Alexa is pretty limited on smartphones, as it doesn’t have access to much of the systems that make Google Now/Assistant and Siri useful – such as location via GPS, or email, contacts and calendars.

Unless Amazon could convince an OEM to replace Assistant with Alexa, it’s hard to see how Amazon can gain a foothold here. Sure, it might find a niche on one of the alternative smartphone OS platforms, perhaps with Canonical’s Ubuntu, given their existing Amazon relationship in the PC versions of the Linux distro, but we are pretty certain that Google wouldn’t allow a version of Android that dethroned its own assistant.

Alexa has cropped up in other devices, such as Logitech’s ZeroTouch phone cradle for cars, but these are essentially peripheral devices to the smartphone – and the phone itself is what Alexa needs to crack if it wants any shot at establishing a significant smartphone presence. Of course, Alexa was originally designed as the key differentiator for Amazon’s own Fire Phone, but when that failed it was rehomed in the Echo home device, where it has been a surprise hit, and provoked Google and Apple into their own response in the smart home.