Samsung Galaxy S8: Has Bixby been over-promised and under-delivered? Its AI voice assistant in the UK won't be available until later in the year


UK consumers will have to wait for Bixby on their S8 (Source: Reuters)

The Samsung S8 is an impressive smartphone. Slick, slim, lightweight and with a satisfyingly smooth glass screen that spills over the edges like an infinity pool.

There’s no denying that this attractive specimen could tempt many away from Apple, (depending what it has up its sleeve with the iPhone 8, of course). But, there’s one major feature that’s been promised in the S8 and has not yet been delivered on - a voice assistant.

As Amazon takes over our homes with Alexa, and Google Home hot on its heels, Samsung’s very own Bixby is an attempt to keep up with the competition and the changing tastes of consumers. Samsung spilled all last week, ahead of today’s S8 launch, on its Apple Siri/Alexa hybrid.

Read more: It looks like Samsung’s jumped on the Snapchat bandwagon too

What Samsung says Bixby's artificial intelligence does is impressive: understanding context more, figuring out commands by filing in the blank if some words are missing from your sentence and completing tasks on your phone that might normally take more than a dozen clicks (every little helps, after all).

But anyone in buying the S8 in the UK won't know about any of that, because disappointingly, it won’t be available on the phones here until later in the year.

Korea and the US will get the full functionality of Bixby first and at launch. The UK will get some functionality such as visual search. That means you can point your camera at an item and it will search the web for where you can buy it. But Samsung needs time to work on tailoring and training Bixby to the British English accent and to local references.

This kind of work does take time. Amazon took around a year from launching it in the US to entering the UK market with a device that could tell Monty Python Jokes and understand the Geordie dialect.

Samsung’s voice assistant technology was acquired when it bought Viv Labs, a San Francisco-based startup, in October last year.  A smart move that has added another string to the bow of the S8 and beyond (Samsung will also integrate it into its vast array of other electronics such as TV’s, fridges and washing machines in future).

Read more: Meet Samsung’s newest smartphones, the Galaxy S8 and S8+

So, perhaps we can expect Bixby on British shores around October time this year. But in the meantime, Google Home will go on sale. Amazon will keep adding to its already useful array of Alexa skills. And more crucially of all, Apple will launch its next iPhone, what’s expected to be the iPhone 8.

To confuse things even more, Google Assistant, the AI assistant that will be on the Home speaker device, will also be on the S8 at launch because it runs Android.

The lack of Bixby is a disappointment for UK consumers not to be able to get their hands on one of the most exciting technologies around via Samsung, especially when it teased us with it just a week ago. But, it also leaves the business a little more on the back foot in a market tougher than any Gorilla Glass screen.

Perhaps I'm asking too much of Bixby. After all, Geoff Blaber, analyst at CCS Insight, told City A.M.: "AI tools and machine learning in particular is incredibly complex, so the best approach is to launch services on a smaller scale and build steadily as the system becomes smarter and more capable. Limiting the feature set at launch is a very sensible approach"

He added that capabilities of AI are always improving and "the product today will not be the same as the product tomorrow". 

Hopefully, it's worth the wait .