With 2019 underway, I think it’s safe to say that 2018 was a big year for digital assistants and smart speakers in the home. And the coming years will likely continue that trend based on usage forecasts: eMarketer suggests a 15 percent increase in smart speaker usage for 2019, with an estimated 74.2 million people U.S. using them at least once per month.
That’s great news if you’re Google or Amazon, maybe even a little for Apple and Microsoft. What about Samsung and its grand plans for Bixby though?
Let’s step back to the beginning of 2018 where I sat through a lengthy Samsung press event at the Consumer Electronics Show. Instead of highlighting the latest tablets, phones and other gadgets, the company showcased how it would use its SmartThings platform and Bixby voice assistant across nearly its entire product line. “Bixby everywhere” was the theme I took away.
Then in August, Samsung debuted its smart speaker entry, the Samsung Galaxy Home powered by a then-improved Bixby and doubling as a SmartThings home hub. That sounded great, both literally — the speaker quality impressed me in demonstrations — and figuratively. Samsung didn’t specify a price or release date at the time, so in fairness, it hasn’t missed any deadlines. However, it’s now 2019 and you still can’t buy a Galaxy Home. It’s just not for sale yet. So during the hottest sales period in a hot market for smart speakers, Samsung completely missed out on the holiday shopping season with its Galaxy Home.
To be sure, Bixby itself is available, as long as you have a recent Samsung phone or tablet. But I wouldn’t say that’s a resounding success by comparison to the other companies in this space. Indeed, using Google Trends as a proxy for interest in Bixby compared to the Echo and Home products, you can see interest just isn’t there.
Heck, one of the more popular “Bixby” apps in the Google Play Store is an app that removes the dedicated hardware button function mapped to Bixby on Samsung phones. More than one million people have downloaded the app to essentially remove Bixby and use that hardware button for some other function. It’s as if there is more of an audience that doesn’t want to use Bixby than one that does.
Samsung knows this, of course. And I wonder if it plans to slowly start waving the white flag of surrender when it comes to Bixby. We’ll find out more next week at CES, but there’s already an early sign: Samsung is reportedly planning to add Google Assistant support alongside Bixby in its smart television sets. And oddly enough, Samsung owns Harman, which is comprised of speaker brands such as AKG, Harman Kardon and JBL. Harman did debut a smart speaker in 2018; can you guess which voice assistant it uses? If you guessed Bixby, you’d be wrong: It has Microsoft’s Cortana, of all things.
I just don’t understand how Samsung ever thought Bixby could be a player in the smart speaker market. The company doesn’t have the reach or the knowledge graph of a Google or an Amazon.
By reach, I mean an openness for hardware makers that want to add Bixby voice services to their devices. Yes, they can do that thanks to Samsung opening up Bixby services to third-parties, but that just happened in November while other voice assistants have offered that for a long while now. There are now dozens, if not hundreds, of third-party devices using Google or Amazon’s assistant technology, including my home robot. And as far as a knowledge graph? Apple’s Siri, not known for her smarts relative to Alexa and the Google Assistant would likely be a better Jeopardy! contestant than Bixby.
I’m sure Bixby will once again be a showcase service for Samsung at CES. But you can’t buy products as a consumer at the show. What really matters is when, or even if, Samsung gets Bixby speakers on retail shelves so we can see if consumers will buy them. My guess based on Bixby’s smartphone mediocrity? They won’t in any meaningful numbers and the smart speaker race continues to be run by Google and Amazon with Apple and Microsoft battling for the bronze medal.