Narrative: Samsung is Bad at Services
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Narrative: Samsung is Bad at Services (Jan 28, 2017)
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When the Samsung Galaxy S8 devices were preparing to launch, some were caught off guard by the fact that the English language version of its Bixby voice interface wouldn’t be available when it went on sale. Later, Bixby was released as a limited public beta in the US, and today it’s going to be available as an update to all US owners of the devices, roughly three months after the devices went on sale. At launch, Samsung faced a conundrum: ship a version that wasn’t ready and risk people’s first experiences with Bixby putting them off for life, or delay one of the headline features of the phone for several months, and in the end it plumped for the latter. That was smart, and there seems to have been little backlash about the delay from users (perhaps suggesting they mostly don’t care about it). Reviews based on the early beta release suggested there were some big issues and bugs, but the Journal piece linked here is more positive about it. The big issue remains Samsung’s framing of Bixby as an interface rather than an assistant, after years of smartphone users being trained to see the two as essentially synonymous. But Bixby is definitely not a broad assistant: it can’t answer questions about the world (or in many cases your slice of it), but is very good at controlling device functions and settings, at least within Samsung’s own apps. My brief testing suggests Bixby still pretty glitchy, even in the setup process. The list of third party apps offering Bixby integration hasn’t got much longer since my testing of the device at Samsung’s launch event, and that will be another key challenge here: an assistant that only works for some apps but not others ends up not being very assistive: consistency is the key, something that other assistants have demonstrated through their inconsistency too. If users do adopt Bixby for the things it can do, it’s likely they’ll do so alongside the Google Assistant, which can handle most of the rest, but I could also see many users giving up on Bixby and using just Google’s tool as the one voice interface most likely to help them get things done on their phone. Relatedly, there are reports today that Samsung won’t in fact be making a Bixby voice speaker, something it was reported to be working on earlier, and which I had said made little sense in the context of Bixby as an interface rather than an assistant.
Samsung Reportedly Working on Bixby-Powered Home Speaker (Jul 5, 2017)
Samsung’s Bixby Further Delayed in US to End of June (May 31, 2017)
★ Samsung Uses Google Music as Default Option on Galaxy S8 (Apr 21, 2017)
This actually isn’t news, at least if you paid attention a couple of weeks ago when Business Insider UK reported (and I noted) that Korean would be the launch language for Bixby, and that American English would follow in May, with British English later in the year. However, it appears that Samsung provided a somewhat different steer to US press, telling them that the assistant would be available at launch on April 21st. News of the later US launch is now filtering out through US reps too, however, and will be received as bad news by those who pre-ordered the phone (apparently in large numbers) ahead of reviews and the release of this news. Given that Bixby is at least on paper one of the headline features, at least some of those early buyers will be disappointed, though the screen is another big selling point and that should perform as advertised with the caveats I mentioned in my first comment on the S8 and in the podcast episode I did on the Samsung announcements. Releasing Bixby late is better than releasing a buggy version not ready for launch, but the delay had better not be too long, nor the version it does release too unpolished. Both are risks at this point.
Samsung Debuts Galaxy S8 and S8+ (Mar 29, 2017)
Samsung today announced its next-generation flagship smartphones, the Galaxy S8 and S8+, at an event in New York, which I was able to attend in person. I’ll post separate comments on some of the other announcements made today. The phones look really solid, with a great new design that quite dramatically changes the relationship between screen size and device size, in much the same way as Apple is expected to do later this year. The new design is much more comfortable to hold than last year’s fairly angled efforts, but it has two tradeoffs: the fingerprint sensor is now on the back, and the aspect ratio is very long and thin, which may cause compatibility issues with apps and will mean letterboxing with videos. There are a few software features worth noting too: the new assistant Bixby, which combines voice control with some clever camera recognition tricks and proactive notifications, and broader application of Samsung Pay and Pass (the latter uses biometrics to log the user in to websites and apps). While the hardware is clearly impressive at first glance, we’ll have to wait until reviewers have spent some time with the software and services to know whether it’s as good as advertised – this has been an area of weakness for Samsung in the past, so there’s a steep hill to climb here. The other thing worth noting is that Samsung is pricing these devices around $100 higher than all its previous entrants in this line, which puts them at a competitive disadvantage relative to other flagships, and may offset the sales benefits it might have otherwise achieved from what looks like a strong effort here. All this should finally help move the Samsung news cycle beyond the Note7 and into a more positive narrative for a while.
Samsung has somewhat unexpectedly taken the wraps off its virtual assistant Bixby ahead of next week’s Galaxy S8 launch, where I’d expected it to be the main event from a feature perspective. Based on how Samsung is describing the feature, though, I think it’s merely trying to defuse some hype by downplaying expectations of what Bixby will and won’t be. (The hype was fueled in part by Samsung’s acquisition of Viv, which was a more traditional virtual assistant that Samsung acquired last year, but Bixby appears to be something less.) The description from Samsung is somewhat vague, but I think the approach actually has a lot of merit: every other assistant promises to be just that, implying a broad-based ability to meet needs, which inevitably leads to disappointment and frustration when it falls short, over-promising and under-delivering. Samsung looks like it will come at this from the opposite end, starting small and building up functionality over time, app by app, in a way that the voice interface is able to handle everything the touch interface does in the same app. That, incidentally, should be good for accessibility, something Android devices have always done less well than iPhones. But the big limit there as with Bixby overall is that if third party developers don’t support it, it won’t be very useful, and it the S8 ships with the Google Assistant users may just choose to use that instead. I’m very curious to see next week exactly how Bixby is invoked and how it compares to the more traditional assistant model. Samsung doesn’t have a great reputation in software and services, and I’m skeptical that it will get this right.
via The Verge
The number in the headline refers to the acquisition price of Viv, a virtual assistant startup which Samsung bought a few months back and is expected to integrate into the Samsung S8 launching later this month. To put that number in context, it’s around the same amount Apple was reported to have paid to acquire Siri, and tiny in the context of Samsung’s overall business – it generated $180 billion in revenue last year, along with $25 billion in operating profit. So Samsung can far more easily afford this investment than, say, Xiaomi can afford its comparably-sized investment in in-house chip capability. But it’s still a decent chunk of money from Samsung in a year when it also announced the much larger Harman acquisition. Far more importantly, we haven’t yet seen what Viv will do when integrated into a Samsung phone, and whether it’ll be as good as the early hype around the standalone product suggested.