Operation Shush: The rise and fall of Samsung’s unloved Bixby assistant

There’s a silent campaign — let’s call it Operation Shush — to stop you from using Bixby on your Samsung phone. The virtual assistant was once heralded as the future of control for connected Samsung devices, and the answer to Apple’s Siri and Google’s Assistant. Today, just like the Galaxy Home — a Bixby-focused product that has never been released — Bixby isn’t mentioned much at all, almost as if it’s hoped we forget it ever existed.

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What happened? And does Bixby deserve to be silenced?

Lofty expectations

“The possibility of what Bixby can become is endless,” Injong Rhee, Samsung’s head of research and development, wrote in the original 2017 announcement, arguably setting Bixby up for failure right from the start. We were told Bixby was “a new intelligent interface on our devices” and “fundamentally different from other voice agents or assistants in the market.”

Unfortunately it was neither of these things. Bixby was heavily promoted first on the Galaxy S8 and Galaxy S9, going so far as to have a dedicated hardware button to invoke it. But a launch delay meant Samsung failed to capitalize on any hype it had built up. Even when it did arrive, Bixby had similar problems to other voice assistants during the early stages, ranging from not understanding your voice or accent to simply having limited overall functionality. That was amplified by Bixby being pitched as an assistant for performing actions on the phone, like navigating through apps or performing multi-app tasks, in addition to answering queries using information from the cloud.

Bixby
Julian Chokkattu/Digital Trends

Samsung’s heavy-handed push to get us all using Bixby didn’t help endear us to the new assistant. Bixby’s irritatingly cheerful “Hi, I’m Bixby” greeting was enough to attract considerable ire, and much eye-rolling, from Samsung phone owners because it inevitably followed the accidental press of the Bixby button, or after forgetting the power button on a Samsung phone doesn’t actually access the power menu anymore.

Samsung really wanted you to use Bixby, but during that early phase there wasn’t much to actually do with it, and the voice commands that were available (and worked) weren’t especially helpful. Between the lofty expectations, hardcore promotion, and disappointing functionality, Bixby became unlikeable almost right from the start, even after a bit of rapping. Not good for a friendly voice assistant we were supposed to want to talk to.

Not just smartphones

Bixby wasn’t all about the smartphone though, and Samsung envisaged Bixby being used on a host of other connected products. “It starts off with smartphones,” Rhee told Digital Trends in an interview about Bixby in 2017, “but anywhere that has an internet connection and a microphone, Bixby can be used.”

Sure enough, Bixby was eventually integrated into Samsung’s smart televisions, smart ovens, smart refrigerators, and many other IoT products. In 2018, however, Rhee, who championed Bixby along with several other high profile cloud-related projects including Samsung Knox, left the company and joined Google, where he initially worked on its new IoT business.

With its champion gone, Bixby started to fade into the background at Samsung, as it minimized the feature’s importance on the latest smartphones and other products. The Galaxy S10 was the last Samsung phone to include a dedicated Bixby button, pushing the feature instead to a secondary action on the power button. Unsurprisingly Bixby failed to thrive, and the silent campaign began in earnest.

Bixby’s not at Home

The effort to silence Bixby is clear when you search online, as for every one article on how to use Bixby, there are 10 more on how to disable or remove Bixby. People really took against the virtual assistant, in a way few have with Google Assistant, Alexa, or even Siri. But it’s not just the general public that wants Bixby facing the wall in a corner; Samsung is doing a good job of minimizing the assistant’s functionality on its phones.

When I set my Galaxy S21 Ultra up it didn’t ask me anything related to Bixby. If you look at Samsung’s official “What is Bixby” page, the Galaxy S21 hasn’t even been added to the list of smartphones featuring the assistant yet. Is poor, unloved Bixby even there?

Andy Boxall/Digital Trends

You really have to make an effort to use Bixby on the S21. Bixby Home, the swipe-in panel where Bixby once lived, has completely disappeared, as has the watered-down Samsung Daily page which replaced it in the more recent versions of Samsung’s OneUI. The Bixby button, once a source of hate, has not made an appearance since the Galaxy S10, with Samsung preferring to use the Side Key (that’s the power key to you and me) to summon Bixby instead. However unlike the old Bixby button it can be remapped to perform other duties, none of which have to include waking up Bixby.

Samsung itself doesn’t even try to promote Bixby at this point.

Bixby Vision, the visual search component, is still part of the Galaxy S21 Ultra’s camera, despite the augmented reality aspects being shut down in October last year, but to find the rest you have to go to the More category first. To use it, you then have to install the Amazon Assistant app, change various permission settings, and then you can start using it. Not that it’s worth all this effort, as it rarely recognizes objects, and its translation isn’t as accurate as Google’s.

How about in the home? Ignoring the Galaxy Home no-show, support for Google Assistant and Amazon Alexa support has been added to many of the devices Bixby controlled early on. Most recently, and perhaps the greatest showing of no-confidence in Bixby, was the deeper integration of Assistant into Samsung’s very own SmartThings app.

At this point, if you don’t set Bixby’s voice recognition service up on your new Samsung phone, then you won’t really know Bixby even exists. Access is everything. If people don’t know Bixby is there, then Bixby will not speak.

Deserving of the hate?

Despite the predicted increase in the use of virtual assistants over the coming years, Bixby is not only being shunned, but nudged out by the competition on its own devices. If you swipe up from the corner of the home screen on a modern Samsung phone, you get Google Assistant. It’s easier to summon, more functional, and less intrusive. Even without Google I/O in 2020, Google has added new features to Assistant, given it a redesign, and trumpeted how it apparently helped many people cope with 2020’s difficulties.

Google Assistant has a 22% market share in the world of voice assistants, but it’s still behind Siri. Apple leads the market with a 25% share, despite only being available on Apple devices, taking away any excuse Samsung may use about a limited audience holding Bixby back. Apple also still regularly talks about Siri and did so during WWDC 2020, when it introduced some significant changes as part of iOS 14.

Andy Boxall/Digital Trends

At this point you’re probably wondering why any of this matters. After all, who cares, it’s only Bixby. Before writing this piece I settled down to use Bixby as often as I could, to see if it really should be neither seen nor heard. I set Bixby up, asked it things, and used its various features.

Samsung’s disillusionment in Bixby is sadly clear, but it’s not all bad. There is a successful recent redesign, where the interface became less visually intrusive, and in general, Bixby has had no problem recognizing my voice. It’s great for asking directions (Bixby leans on Google Maps for this), dictation, or for simple tasks like taking a photo; but nothing that Google Assistant couldn’t do. Capsules — Bixbied versions of If This Then That (IFTTT) commands, mixed with the convenience of systems like Google Play Instant apps — are fast and can be helpful, but due to Operation Shush, I had to go digging to find them.

Bixby Routines also recreates IFTTT-like commands on your phone, using dozens of on-device triggers to perform dozens more on-device actions. You can make your phone do anything automatically when you’re charging, connect headphones, or arrive at a specific location for example. It’s a fantastic feature, but there’s no voice or “A.I.” component to it whatsoever, and aside from using the Bixby name isn’t tied into Bixby at all. And perhaps because of that association, few people give it a try in the first place.

Worthy of defense?

Bixby has been around since 2017, and although it has the financial and technical might of Samsung behind it, it’s still not very intelligent or as intuitive as the competition when things get more complicated. When I ask Bixby to play white noise, it often tells me ocean sounds are also very relaxing. Except getting those sounds to play is not as simple as saying, “play ocean sounds.” If I’ve got to think about how I phrase my request more than once, any virtual assistant is fighting a losing battle to retain my interest.

Compared to Bixby’s basic voice control, Capsules and Routines have some potential and if Samsung actually promoted them, may help people understand how Bixby may benefit them regularly. However, they’re not unique, and at the moment the functionality is not extensive enough to mean I would miss them if they weren’t there.

Bixby actually has potential, even today, but virtually nobody knows.

That’s the trouble. Samsung has minimized Bixby to the extent that not only would I not miss it if it wasn’t there, but I have trouble even knowing it’s there in the first place. The campaign to stop people using Bixby though enforced silence is working. Bixby’s being quiet on your phone, and Samsung’s being quiet about Bixby.

From ignoring it during launches, sweeping the Galaxy Home under the carpet, hiding the assistant on the latest phones, not keeping up with the competition technically, actively embracing Google Assistant where Bixby could work, and minimizing the features it does have, it really does seem like Samsung has nothing else to say about Bixby.

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