Alexa, Siri, Google Assistant, and… Bixby?
For tech pros interested in the rise of voice-activated digital assistants, Samsung’s Bixby may have seemed like an also-ran, if they considered it at all. But Samsung clearly wants Bixby to assume a more prominent place in developers’ minds—which is why it’s opening up the platform to third-party apps.
At the core of Samsung’s new initiative is the Bixby Developer Center, which offers code samples, developer documentation, APIs, a UI kit, and a quick start guide. As Samsung warns in those materials, however, developing for Bixby is radically different than building a “traditional” piece of software.
“You perform modeling, which is how you teach Bixby about the domain you’re implementing,” is how Samsung explains the assistant’s inner workings. “Using your models, and those of other developers, Bixby constructs a program that satisfies the user’s specific request in milliseconds the moment the request is made.”
On a practical level, that means the developer creates a “capsule” (Samsung’s term for app), and then adds “concepts” and “actions.” In Samsung’s methodology, “concepts” are what Bixby knows (for example, the number of sides on a dice, or the sum of multiple dice rolls), and “actions” are what Bixby can do (such as tell the user the result of a dice toss).
In theory, Bixby uses those inputs to generate a program that responds to a user’s natural-language query. It will parse that query to derive intent, then generate a plan for a response based on the concepts and actions, then fetch the necessary data from whatever backend API is relevant, then provide the answer.
Samsung’s documentation offers a lot of solid advice for planning out a capsule, including how to map out “use cases,” and examples of input and output tables. Samsung plans on rolling out a marketplace for third-party capsules sometime in 2019, giving developers some time to build out their ideas.
Yet Samsung faces substantial competition from its digital-assistant rivals, which haven’t been slouches when it comes to building out third-party capabilities. For example, Amazon allows developers to build and monetize Alexa “skills” in categories ranging from music and productivity to games and trivia. Apple has also angled Siri as a developer-friendly platform, giving developers the ability to build HomeKit routines accessible via voice commands (“Siri, turn on the lights and unlock the front door!”); and Google has Actions, which are targeted at multiple verticals.
Although Samsung is a significant competitor in the smartphone arena, it clearly has some ground to make up in the digital-assistant category. But Bixby attracted dreadful reviews upon release, and it remains to be seen whether developers will pay the platform much attention, no matter how big Samsung’s smartphone install base.