Samsung just waded into a huge battle with Google

Westworld robot machine creators credit John P. Johnson HBOJohn P. Johsnon/HBOSamsung is building an AI assistant.
  • Samsung has unveiled Bixby, a voice-controlled AI assistant that lives in your smartphone.
  • The announcement puts Samsung on a collision course with Google and Amazon, who are developing rival assistants.
  • But Samsung has a huge potential advantage — its massive installed base of home appliances like TVs, fridges, and washing machines.
  • Bixby could also undercut Google, which Samsung has long been reliant on for its Android operating system.

Samsung has decided to wade into a massive battle over the future of computing — and it has a huge potential advantage.

On Monday, the South Korean electronics company announced “Bixby”: A voice-controlled AI assistant that lives inside your smartphone.

It now joins Google, Amazon, and Apple, who are all betting that these virtual assistants will be the next major frontier in how people interact with their devices. (They have Google Assistant, Alexa, and Siri, respectively.)

Thanks to Samsung’s vast range of appliances, which are already sitting in consumers’ homes, it has a massive potential head start on its competitors, just waiting to be leveraged. And it could also help it lessen its long-running dependence on Google.

Bixby is basic — for now

We’re getting ahead of ourselves. To begin with, Bixby will only be available on one device, the upcoming Samsung Galaxy S8 smartphone (and its larger sibling, the S8 Plus). It will let you make calls or carry out tasks on your phone by pressing the dedicated Bixby button on the side and asking it to do something. No different to Apple’s Siri or the Google Assistant, in other words.

But where it gets more interesting for Samsung are its future plans for Bixby.

Samsung Smart FridgeDavid Becker/Getty ImagesA Samsung smart fridge.

Google and Amazon are racing each other right now to make their virtual assistants available in as many different devices as possible.

They’re already available in the Amazon Echo and Google Home smart speakers — and now they’re being baked into everything from cars to home appliances. The point is to get virtuous network efforts that reinforce usage, and lock in their dominance.

And this is where Samsung holds a huge potential advantage. While Amazon has to negotiate with external hardware partners about the terms under which Alexa is included, Samsung can simply leverage its huge range of electronics it builds in-house.

The company makes everything from televisions to washing machines: Bixby can be (relatively) easily installed into them or their successors, opening it up to a huge audience.

“Starting with our smartphones, Bixby will be gradually applied to all our appliances,” Samsung executive vice president Injong Rhee wrote in a blog post. “In the future, you would be able to control your air conditioner or TV through Bixby. Since Bixby will be implemented in the cloud, as long as a device has an internet connection and simple circuitry to receive voice inputs, it will be able to connect with Bixby.”

Bixby is an opportunity for Samsung to turn Google into a ‘dumb tube’

Google assistant sundar pichai ai artificial intelligenceRamin Talaie/Getty ImagesGoogle CEO Sundar Pichai, announcing Google Assistant.

Bixby could also help save Samsung from its dependence on Google. The company has long been reliant on Google for the free Android mobile operating system that powers most Samsung phones. The company tries to differentiate its devices with custom software and hardware features — but they’re still inescapably Android devices.

Samsung has built its own operating system, Tizen, but it has never made much headway in the smartphone space (smartwatches are another matter).

If Bixby is successful, it could become the default layer through which many users interact with their smartphones and other devices.

So long as the device you’re using can run Bixby, you’re sorted, whether it’s an Android smartphone or a fridge. It effectively turns Android into a “dumb tube” that delivers what the user really wants: Bixby.

Of course, Google is not going to take this lying down, and is aggressively pushing Google Assistant to as many smartphones as it can. Likewise, Amazon’s Alexa is also trying to invade Google’s turf and get itself pre-installed on smartphones.

But right now, we’re in the very early stages of the voice-controlled revolution. It’s all still to play for — and it’s a huge opportunity for Samsung.

“As the Bixby ecosystem grows, wrote Samsung’s Injong Rhee, “we believe Bixby will evolve from a smartphone interface to an interface for your life.”

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