It’s hard to argue that Samsung hasn’t had a terrific year so far. In 2017, the world’s most prolific smartphone maker delivered a critically acclaimed new flagship in the Galaxy S8 and S8 Plus, and it followed that up with a record-breaking Note 8 super flagship. Redemption complete, right? Well, not so fast. Even as it rises to new heights of software and design refinement, Samsung is holding on to some bad habits, the chief of which has a name and a sort of anthropomorphized form: Bixby.
Bixby is Samsung’s answer to Amazon’s Alexa, Google’s Assistant, Microsoft’s Cortana, and Apple’s Siri. It’s supposed to be the smart spirit that lives inside your phone and proactively helps you get through your day. Before Google Assistant was a thing, the Mountain View company spoke of the concept as “search without search”: turning the contextual awareness of your phone into a series of automatic triggers to surface useful information. Most of us are familiar with these (still rudimentary) assistive qualities, which synergize nicely with voice controls and natural-language searches to set the stage for a future where we just talk to our smart and informed pocket computers. Only problem is that Bixby represents none of that usefulness or nascent promise.
My colleague Dan Seifert has already given a full account of Bixby’s failures, which have been so egregious as to force Samsung to issue a software update that allows users to disable the dedicated Bixby button on Galaxy S8 and Note 8 handsets. I have a huge problem with what Bixby and its button represent for Samsung as a company: they tell me that Samsung’s overarching objectives are not user-centric, and they show that Samsung is willing to impose a crappy experience on us for some imagined brand cachet. I’ve been extremely complimentary of Samsung’s TouchWiz changes in 2017, and I also love the ergonomics of the almost bezel-less Galaxy S8 Plus. But this Bixby stuff is unforgivable.
A major point to keep in mind: the cheapest of the devices I’m talking about today, the Galaxy S8, costs somewhere around $650, even with discounts. Samsung’s official prices are $725 for the S8, $825 for the S8 Plus, and $900-something for the Note 8. These are beyond premium devices. When you buy one of these phones, you should expect small plumes of perfume to waft up at your nostrils, a tiny trumpet band to start playing, and a handwritten note of thanks from Samsung Mobile chief JK Shin. Instead, you get Bixby.
The Bixby button on both the Galaxy S8 models and Galaxy Note 8 is perfect. If you’re left-handed, it’s exactly where you’d want a power button to be, sitting where your thumb would naturally rest. Were it actually pointed at a useful or desirable function, I’d laud and applaud it. But the most common reason for pressing the Bixby button to date has been an accidental click when people have wanted to turn the phone’s volume down (because the volume rocker is just above). The moment the Galaxy S8 launched, prospective users were already asking if they could re-purpose the button to activate Google Assistant, but Samsung has resolutely and stringently denied them that possibility. The company’s present climbdown to just disable the button rather than allow us to use it otherwise is embarrassingly user-hostile.
Isn’t Bixby pushy enough even without the button? You can’t set up a Galaxy smartphone without being informed about Bixby and urged to sign up for the requisite Samsung account. Swipe left from the home screen and a sort of champagne-bubble animation kicks in as Bixby starts to wake… I usually swipe frantically back to the right to avoid further prompts. Most onerous of all is Samsung forcing its Bixby camera-assisting features on me every time I open the camera app. I gave in after just half a day trying to shoot photos for our Galaxy S8 review. So well done, Samsung, you forced your horrible piece of self-serving bloat on me, and in the process you extracted some additional personal information. Are you feeling proud of bullying your users into this?
I know that Google works on similar principles to those underpinning Samsung’s Bixby: make a new data-hungry feature a core part of the software and tirelessly nudge people into using it until they do. But the Google difference is that its services are actually superior and useful: Google Assistant is the best “smart assistant” of them all, while Google Maps, Google Photos, YouTube, Chrome, and Gmail are all among the best mobile experiences you can have. If Google gets pushy with any of those, I’m usually untroubled because I do actually want them. Samsung should try making something better first, and then maybe it won’t have to force-feed it to us the way it’s been doing with Bixby.
I’m angry and angsty about Bixby primarily because it shows a Samsung sticking to its old bad habits. The company took a big step forward with the much cleaner and improved TouchWiz interface, but it rewound all that progress by making Bixby so entrenched, both in hardware and software, in its leading 2017 phones. Most bloatware on smartphones is cyclical: this or that app, this or that carrier-enforced “utility.” But with Bixby Samsung is signing up for the long haul. The company has already committed major resources to creating a smart voice assistant — it did buy the team that created Siri after all — and it seems determined to force this Bixby thing into usable and useful form. I would just much rather Samsung does that behind closed doors instead of expecting us to savor its half-baked software before it’s fully cooked.
A significant part of the Galaxy Note 7 battery fiasco last year was Samsung dragging its feet and trying to do the least possible to make the situation go away. The company did stuttering, geographically limited recalls at first, tried to reissue the phone with a “fix”, and eventually had to admit total defeat. I see Samsung 2017 repeating those Samsung 2016 mistakes with Bixby. Yes, I understand that Samsung’s invested heavily in this feature, but there’s not a human on Earth (that I know of, anyway) who is honestly lauding Bixby as a unique advantage. Most are just asking for it to go away, and for the newly vacant button to be customizable to our own preferences. Is that too much to ask when you spend hundreds of dollars on a phone?