Samsung unveils Bixby voice assistant for upcoming Galaxy S8

The feature will work using a physical button on side of smartphone

Samsung revealed Monday that Bixby, an intelligent voice assistant, will run on the Samsung Galaxy S8 smartphone slated to be announced March 29 in New York.

Bixby will be activated using a special physical button on the side of the phone, differentiating it from some other assistants that rely on a trigger word, like "Alexa" or "Siri." Samsung also said Bixby will eventually work on millions of Samsung-made devices, potentially including TVs and washing machines.

The S8 will come with a subset of preinstalled apps that are Bixby-enabled, according to Injong Rhee, executive vice president of software and services for Samsung Electronics. Over time, this set of apps will expand; Samsung will release a software toolkit to allow third-party developers to Bixby enable their apps and services.

"Bixby will be our first step on a journey to completely open up new ways of interacting with your phone," Rhee said.

Gartner analyst Werner Goertz said Bixby is a late-comer to the digital assistant game, arriving two years after Amazon's Alexa and behind Google Assistant, which already have rich databases of voice inquiries and searches to add context to queries.

Alexa is well known for working with Echo room units. However, just last week, Amazon announced that Alexa works in its Amazon app on iOS devices.

"Bixby is going to be playing catch up," Goertz said. "Samsung faces a complete greenfield with its knowledge base."

Even Alexa is in its "very early stages" in terms of how well a user can get an answer to a complicated question. "Everybody has a good time trying to trick these digital assistants, but if you bring in Bixby it's going to be even easier to trip up Bixby."

The functions of converting speech to text with digital assistants "works relatively well unless you trip it up with accents and background noise," he said. The more critical issue is the knowledge base needed to find accurate information.

Still, Samsung argued that Bixby will offer a "deeper experience." The company said that the feature in a Bixby-enabled app will support almost every task the app is capable of performing, including touch commands. By comparison, most agents currently only support a few selected tasks, which can confuse users about what works by voice command in an app.

Samsung also said Bixby will know the current context and state of an app to allow users to carry out work in progress. Users will be able to weave touch with voice interactions, depending on what they like.

And Bixby will also be smart enough to understand commands with incomplete information to the best of its knowledge, then ask for more information. "This makes the interface much more natural and easier to use," Rhee added.

Even though Samsung is getting a late start with Bixby, Goertz said it stands to gain traction quickly, partly because Samsung is so large.

Samsung finished 2016 as the largest smartphone maker globally, although Apple edged ahead of it in the fourth quarter, according to IDC. Amazon has 10,000 integration partners for Alexa -- everything from lights to security systems. But Samsung has a SmartThings home automation line and also makes a wide range of products beyond home devices like washing machines and TVs, including heavy construction equipment.

"Bixby will be a great addition" to Samsung products, Goertz said. The S8 should also support Google Assistant if it ships with Android 7.0 as expected, "so users will have a choice between Bixby and Google Assistant."

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