Twice a year, Samsung holds its Galaxy Unpacked launch event. Twice a year, we wonder: will Samsung finally announce its mysterious Bixby-enabled smart speakers, the Galaxy Home and Galaxy Home Mini? And twice a year, the company announces phones, accessories, and partnerships galore — with no Bixby speaker in sight.
Where, oh where, is the Galaxy Home? We’ve been waiting for this cauldron-shaped device since Samsung announced it at its August 2018 event. (That may not seem too long ago, but for context, the Note 9 also launched at that event.) Samsung promised the device in April 2019, then pushed to “the first half of 2019,” then to Q3 2019. The Galaxy Home Mini then appeared as a public beta at the end of August 2019, alongside rumors of a February 12th, 2020, release. Spoiler alert: that didn’t happen either.
But we know the Galaxy Home speakers exist in some form. For one, I’ve seen the Mini myself. It was set up in a remote corner of Samsung’s SmartThings suite at CES this January, though the Samsung reps wouldn’t let me try it. Some photos and video of the device in action also appeared online last weekend. And Samsung has actually made the product available — not for purchase, but as a promotional add-on to Galaxy S20 preorders in South Korea.
TL;DR: Samsung clearly has working speakers. So what’s the holdup?
For the record, we’ve asked Samsung this question repeatedly over the past few days and haven’t received an answer. But it only takes a brief glance at the current smart home landscape to see why it’s not a great time to launch a Bixby speaker.
The market for smart speakers is crowded. Amazon and Google dump new Alexa- and Google Assistant-enabled devices at launch events each year, and their speakers are getting better without jumping in price. Third-party manufacturers are also finding success in the space: Sonos makes the most premium Alexa and Google Assistant speakers on the market, and Lenovo makes excellent Assistant-powered smart displays. Alexa is in all sorts of wearables now, from rings to Fitbits, and Google is in every Android phone.
Meanwhile, Alexa and Google Assistant are looking better than ever. Amazon has spent the past two years zeroing in on natural conversation — from features like Follow-up Mode, which allows you to converse without using the wake word, to Whisper Mode, which enables the assistant to respond to whispers with a low voice of its own. There are currently over 100,000 third-party Alexa skills. And Google Assistant can now translate between languages in real time and use machine learning to customize alarm tones to the weather.
This is all to say that to become a big player in today’s landscape, a voice assistant can’t just be functional; it needs to be exceptional. And Bixby is… well, not that.
While I’m sure there are stans out there, I have never met someone who actually enjoys using Samsung’s voice assistant. It was billed as a highlight feature of the Galaxy S8, but users were so unhappy with the existence of its dedicated button (former Verge editor Vlad Savov maligned it as “structural bloatware”) that Samsung finally gave them a way to remap it with the release of the S10 (and removed it entirely from the S20 models). It’s not that Bixby was particularly terrible; it’s just that Google Assistant can do everything that Bixby can do — but better. The company also hasn’t mentioned Bixby in either of its last two Unpacked keynotes, nor was it a centerpiece of any of its various CES 2020 events.
That means that a Bixby speaker would likely be attempting to cash in on brand loyalty — that is, wooing customers who are particularly tapped into Galaxy phones or the SmartThings ecosystem by promising better integration.
But this strategy, paired with a subpar voice assistant, hasn’t worked especially well in the past. As of last August, Apple’s HomePod had a whopping 5 percent share of the US smart speaker market. This was despite audio that was much better than any other speaker in its price range and despite its seamless with Apple’s ecosystem. Siri wasn’t good enough to justify the price. (It couldn’t look up recipes, make a phone call, or set two timers at once.) There hasn’t been another Siri speaker since.
Also, remember Harman Kardon’s Cortana speaker? That didn’t sell either.
Aside from the competition, the market for smart speakers is tightening overall. While the number of speaker users is expected to rise over the next several years, analysts are predicting that growth will slow. After all, smart speaker owners don’t tend to upgrade them the way they do laptops and smartphones. (When’s the last time you upgraded your speaker?) And swapping an entire home to a new smart home platform is a bigger hassle than switching from Android to iOS. That’s one of the reasons Google and Amazon aren’t constantly updating their flagship speakers: Amazon has been putting out new Echo generations roughly every other year, while Google still hasn’t upgraded its Google Home, which came out in 2016.
There’s no room in the market for a boring speaker with a bad voice assistant. The Samsung name, and the Samsung ecosystem, won’t cut it. It’s not enough for Bixby to be functional. Samsung needs to make its speaker stand out. It needs to develop features for Bixby that Alexa and Google Assistant can’t offer, and it needs to drum up developers to create skills that people want. It needs to get partners on board so it can integrate with the hundreds of smart home brands that people use. It needs to make Bixby really smart. It needs to make something exceptional. There is no benefit to Samsung releasing a Bixby speaker before it’s gotten Bixby exactly right.
I am not convinced that Samsung can do this. The company doesn’t have a track record of releasing excellent speakers, and the fact that it hasn’t mentioned Bixby at any recent launch event indicates that it’s moving away from Bixby as a brand. And if Bixby’s not getting better, the company should pull the plug on its Galaxy Homes.
But if Samsung can somehow put out a product that can not only catch up to Google and Amazon, but somehow outpace their years of innovation, that would be a product worth waiting for. And wait I will. The company is already very late to the smart speaker game; it can afford to be a bit later.