Bixby is Samsung’s new ‘intelligent interface’ for smartphones and beyond

Samsung is entering the voice-powered virtual assistant game a bit later than its competitors, but it says that its forthcoming “Bixby” agent will be “fundamentally different” from what’s already available, thanks to features that reduce confusion around when and where it can be used, and a general knowledge of what’s going on with your device whenever it’s called to perform some action.

Bixby has been thought to have been the product of Viv, an AI assistant created by the team that first built Siri prior to its acquisition by Apple, and acquired by Samsung last year. Samsung created the version of Bixby it’s launching later this month in-house, however. Samsung made Bixby official on Monday with a blog post announcing that it would be launching alongside the Galaxy S8 later in March, detailing some of its features and the company’s longer-term intentions with its entry in the virtual assistant battleground.

Samsung says that Bixby is different because once an app supports it, the intelligent companion will support virtually all of an app’s features and functions; this contrasts with how Cortana, Siri and Google Assistant work, as those generally offer only a limited subset of any app’s full list of features. It’s truly meant to replace text or touch-based input completely, for every app — eventually.

Second, Samsung says Bixby will be aware of what a user is doing on their device when they call the assistant, which means Bixby will understand exactly what a user was doing with their app and be able to take over the work flow at whatever point they’ve left off using touch or something else. This, Samsung says, is fundamentally different from the approach taken by competitor voice assistant products, which typically exist in a completely separate bucket from whatever’s happening on the touch screen.

Finally, Samsung says that Bixby is designed to be very flexible in terms of its acceptance of a range of voice commands, meaning you won’t have to memorize very specific orders like you do with Alexa, for example. It’s also designed to ask for more info and build on what it does understand in a “piecemeal” fashion, meaning it won’t just give up and route you elsewhere if it can’t figure out what it wants the user to have it do.

Samsung says part of its approach with Bixby is reducing friction, to the point that it’s actually adding a dedicated Bixby button on the Galaxy S8, which will let you call it with a physical click. Apple and Google have shortcuts activated by long-press actions, but Samsung will be the first with a dedicated key for its assistant. Plus, the company says it’ll eventually expand Bixby not only to other mobile devices, but also to its air conditioners, TVs and other appliances.

This all sounds very impressive, but Samsung also cautions that we’ll see a first step at the S8 launch, so expect it to perform with relative modesty at launch. It’ll support a small subset of pre-installed apps at launch, for instance, with a third-party SDK planned for eventual release to let developers take on the brunt of the task of getting apps Bixby-enabled.

Bixby sounds considered, thoughtful and thorough in terms of its aims and differentiation from the rest of the mobile virtual assistant market. Talking about something is very different from delivering it in a way that satisfies, of course, so we’ll reserve final judgment until we get a chance to try out Bixby for ourselves later this month.