Exactly one month from now, Samsung will unveil its next flagship phone, the Galaxy S9. It will be the biggest attraction at Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, and it will set the bar for Android flagships for the rest of the year. It will also be Samsung’s first opportunity to respond to Apple’s radically redesigned iPhone X. And, inevitably for being the latest and best product from the world’s most prolific smartphone vendor, the S9 will sell in the millions.
I have no doubt that this phone — or, more likely, phones, given Samsung’s habit of issuing a Plus-sized model — will be momentous and important. I’m sure Samsung will do its usual thing of sandwiching together the best hardware possible inside a design that feels implausible. But I do have one overriding question regarding this upcoming device, a question that might go neglected as the usual hot topics of specs and design start to overtake the conversation.
What will Samsung do with Bixby?
I set out my feelings about Bixby at length back in September: I consider Samsung’s personal assistant software to be a form of structural bloatware that’s using up valuable development time within Samsung and even more valuable goodwill among its users. Bixby is intrusive without being helpful (remember Clippy?), with the pinnacle of its irritant powers being the way it demands you activate it every time you turn on the phone’s camera. Samsung even dedicated a hardware key to Bixby on the otherwise starkly minimalist Galaxy S8. This thing is a problem. Many people spent half the year trying to find a way to turn that spare button into a Google Assistant trigger — the voice assistant Android users actually want to use — and Samsung was eventually embarrassed into allowing the Bixby key to be disabled to avoid accidental launches.
Bixby’s failure didn’t sink the Galaxy S8, and I don’t believe the S9’s commercial success will depend on it either. But Bixby has been a blemish. Like the awkwardly misplaced fingerprint sensor next to the rear camera lens of the S8 and Note 8, Bixby’s nagging presence simply degrades the Samsung user experience in a fashion that feels unnecessary and unacceptable. If we take it as a given that Samsung will avoid the fingerprint sensor misplacement this time around (rumors suggest it will be centered on the back), that leaves only Bixby as the potential anchor dragging down the S9.
Looking at the Galaxy S8 today, you’ll find very little that actually needs improvement, fixing, or upgrading. That phone is stunning in its efficiency, and I still consider the Galaxy S8 Plus to be the most ergonomic large-screen phone I’ve yet used (when relying on iris scanning for biometric ID and not the off-center fingerprint reader, of course). But, even with all the good things about Samsung’s 2017 phones, I was reluctant to recommend them to friends. Bixby and that annoying fingerprint reader were the difference between “great, but flawed” and just flat out great.
The optimist in me would like to believe that there’s a scenario where Samsung actually figures out how to make its voice assistant useful and essential instead of just a nuisance. I’d like to believe that, but I can’t. Google’s Assistant is the gold standard for voice-activated digital genies, and Amazon’s wildly popular Alexa is also available on Android. There really isn’t demand for yet another alternative, and even if there was, is Samsung really the company you’d trust to get it right?
More realistically, I’d constrain my optimism to believing that Samsung can cut ties with its dreadfully unappealing personal assistant and just get on with the business of making a great smartphone. The invite to Samsung’s Galaxy Unpacked event teases camera improvements for the next flagship, which is a generic but always appreciated area of focus. As a reviewer, I’d love to spend the first half of this year comparing Samsung’s latest camera tech to Google’s world-conquering Pixel camera. What I would hate is to have to write another excoriation about how half-baked Bixby is and how Samsung can’t help spoiling a good thing.
Samsung is one of the many tech companies to claim that it only seeks to engage in meaningful innovation. Technological advances mean nothing without being actually useful to the user, and so anything that Samsung puts into its phones should be able to pass a basic utility test. Waterproofing, fast wireless charging, gorgeous displays, large batteries, and great cameras all satisfy that condition and contribute to making the company’s Galaxy phones attractive. All I’m asking of Samsung is to live up to its own aspirations: if you can’t make Bixby work well, leave it out of the Galaxy S9.