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Richard Windsor
5 July 2017

Samsung Bixby - Old demon

The software / AI demon remains un-exorcised

Samsung is continuing to dominate hardware but once again its shortcomings in software and particularly artificial intelligence (AI) are laid bare for all to see. In March, Samsung launched the excellent Galaxy s8 and with it a personal assistant called Bixby that was supposed to be able to make using the device even more fun, easy and intuitive. Unfortunately, the promised complete, contextually aware assistant with best in class natural language recognition has turned out to be a vaguely relevant page of content that only speaks Korean.

The English-speaking version of Bixby was first promised at the end of May, was then pushed to June and now seems to be on hold indefinitely. The problem now is that Samsung is unable to get hold of enough data in English in order to train Bixby well enough to offer a decent voice recognition experience. To me this makes no sense and speaks to discord and poor communication between the different parts of Samsung working in this area.

Firstly, Samsung purchased Viv Labs in 2016 which demonstrated a first-rate natural language recognition system in its personal digital assistant. If the Viv Labs offering is so good, why is Samsung not using it to fix the English language recognition problem that it is having with Bixby? Instead, Viv seems to be inexplicably gathering dust on a shelf until Bixby is ready for the two to be put together. This increases my suspicion that Viv Labs was in fact the last turkey in the shop and that in reality its system does not work nearly as well as had been promised when it was demonstrated.

Secondly, Accurate speech to text is now table stakes in voice recognition and there are a large number of commercial solutions available for implementation. The fact that Samsung is struggling to get this part right as an indication of how far adrift it is. The beta testers who have used it have very mixed opinions on it but perhaps the most telling is that no one is saying that it is better than Google Assistant. The bigger problem is that Bixby is not alone on the Galaxy s8 as Google Assistant is sitting on the home key where it is generating far more usage and most importantly collecting a large proportion of the data the device is generating.

Bixby is suffering from the classic chicken and egg problem which all Digital Assistants have. This is that to improve they need to be used, but to be used, they need to be useful in the first place. The reason why Bixby has no idea of one’s preferences or one’s history is because Google is so much better than Bixby that one will always prefer to use Google.
This is where Bixby is going to fail because it will not be able to generate the usage that it needs to even have a chance of catching up with Alexa, Siri and Cortana, let alone Google Assistant.

Furthermore, relationships and co-working are once again becoming strained inside Samsung just as they were in 2013, when Samsung tried to create its own digital ecosystem.
The net result is likely to be a product that never really works leaving Google as the dominant provider of services on Android devices. Samsung remains a dominant power house in Android smartphones, TVs and semiconductors but when it comes to software, it simply cannot shake its old demons. Hence, we see Samsung continuing as a hardware company which makes money by selling commoditised products in such big volumes that it can make a very healthy profit. On that basis, we continue to be ambivalent to the shares as the strong rally they have enjoyed since the company put the Note 7 disaster behind it, has exhausted the valuation argument. We prefer Tencent, Baidu and Microsoft.

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