Forget foldable phones. Samsung’s Bixby assistant is about to get smarter

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The rumored Galaxy F may capture all the buzz, but Bixby will take center stage at Samsung’s developer conference.

Bixby digital assistant is getting a boost in capabilities — but the question is whether it’s too late.

The South Korean company on Wednesday will kick off its two-day developer conference in San Francisco, an annual event that reflects the company’s big push to get developers to make software specifically for its devices. In the past, that’s meant making apps that work on the edge of Samsung’s curved smartphone displays or take advantage of its S Pen stylus. This year, that focus turns to Bixby and artificial intelligence.

While the prospect of a foldable smartphone — the long rumored Galaxy F — may draw eyeballs to Samsung’s 10 a.m. PT (1 p.m. ET) keynote, that’s more a tease of what’s to come. The meat of the presentation will be all about the now: getting Bixby smarter. The consumer electronics giant could share more information about the Bixby-powered Galaxy Home smart speaker that it unveiled in August, including its sales date.

Samsung plans to let all third-party developers tap into Bixby, according to The Wall Street Journal. Soon companies will be able to make “capsules,” similar to Amazon Alexa skills, to do things like order food using a voice command, the paper said.

The move would fulfill a vow Samsung made when it launched Bixby on the Galaxy S8 in early 2017 and when it unveiled version 2.0 of the AI technology later in the year: opening Bixby up to third-party apps. The goal is to help Bixby compete with the likes of Amazon’s Alexa, Apple’s Siri and Google’s Assistant at a time when digital helpers are all the rage, allowing you to call an Uber ride or control your smart home with your voice.

For Samsung and numerous others, artificial intelligence is the next big wave of computing. Every tech heavyweight is investing in these assistants because they’re heralded as the future of how we’ll interact with our gadgets. The ultimate promise for the smart technology is to predict what you want before you even ask — but in most cases, the digital assistants just aren’t smart enough yet.

The problem for Samsung is it might be too late.

“They’re really far behind,” said Strategy Analytics analyst Jack Narcotta. “They might be far enough behind, they may not be able to effectively catch up to any of the market leaders.”

Only 4 percent of US adults accessing voice assistants on a smartphone use Bixby, according to a survey by Voicebox.AI. That compares to 44 percent for Siri, 30 percent for Google Assistant and 17 percent for Alexa.

Meanwhile, Amazon’s devices account for 63 percent of the smart speaker market in the US, with its Echo and Echo Dot leading the pack, according to an October report from Strategy Analytics. Google claimed 17 percent, with its Home and Home Mini in the next two spots.

Samsung has been building its capabilities in software and services over the past decade, but it’s had more flops than successes. It’s launched services — including Bixby’s predecessor, S Voice — only to scrap them a few months or years later. Instead of using its homegrown Tizen operating system in its high-end smartphones, Samsung has relegated the software to wearables and other products and continues to rely on Google’s Android software to power its smartphones and tablets.

While Bixby has its own dedicated button on the side of Galaxy smartphones, Samsung devices users can still access the Google Assistant through the home key. Given the option between Google Assistant and Bixby, many users opt for Google, analysts said.

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