If nothing else, Samsung’s certainly won the smartphone “buzz award” for 2017 so far.
The Galaxy S8 has managed to inspire a lot of eager expectation over the last several weeks, as consumers waited to get their hands on the phone that Samsung hopes will finally turn the page on the series of unfortunate events that followed the ill-fated Galaxy S7.
This week the wait came to an end — and it would be hard to say tech watchers and phone fanatics got any less enthusiastic.
“Samsung has launched the Galaxy S8, and it might be the most beautiful smartphone ever made. It appears to be something a hyper-intelligent alien race accidentally dropped, and we now get to study it,” Forbes Magazine wrote rather breathlessly in what we should note was actually a negative review.
And while the mention of being dropped on the earth by hyper-intelligent aliens was perhaps a uniquely florid way to put it — it is not exactly a one-off review of the Galaxy S8 — the bevel-free, infinity edge OLED design has earned no shortage of praise. Everyone agrees that it is a pretty phone — including Apple, it seems, since leaked images of the iPhone 8 out earlier this week indicate they’re also going after that sleek “Samsung” look.
But for all the praise, the Samsung S8 has also launched with a bit of frustration. The same Forbes author who speculated E.T. might have designed the S8 to call home with also noted the fun under the microscope was “a heartbreaking work of staggering genius…” for all its collected flaws.
And while we think it might be a bit much to expect a phone to be perfect, the Galaxy S8 does launch out of the box with some limitations on some of the products that might have otherwise been selling features.
Bixby — Not Quite Ready to Go Out of the Box
It is not quite accurate to report that the S8 didn’t ship with Bixby — it can do something out of the box like push news headlines or some light aggregating of app content. But what is not quite on as of yet is the voice-controlled element of Bixby that is its main selling point as a voice-activated AI. That will be available “later this spring.”
This is a bit of letdown, since Bixby was one of the cooler selling features of the new Samsung phone, as it stands as a rather interesting entrant into the world of voice-activated AI assistants.
Bixby doesn’t want to be a consumer’s “everything assistant” — general information questions are better asked to Google’s assistant or Siri. Bixby, on the other hand, is designed to actually help users tap more fully into their phone’s potential by better streamlining and anticipating user activities.
“The persona for Bixby that we’re pursuing is a bright sidekick, a much more friendly agent to users,” says Dr. Injong Rhee, Samsung’s head of research and development for Software and Services. “Bixby is capable of developing a new interface to our devices, or devices that are going to host Bixby. Our perspective is to make the interface of the phone simpler and more natural to use.”
That means Bixby is designed to make it easier for customers to “move” around their phone without a lot of navigating, because Bixby was built to have context. Bixby, for example, can understand a command to “send this picture to…” without the user having to open up a lot of apps.
If one is reading about a destination in the web browser, then summons Bixby and says, “I want to go here,” Bixby gets what the user is talking about because it can “see” what the screen is showing.
Bixby is built to be a powerful commerce tool with the use of Bixby Vision — which lets users tap into the S8 camera to identify landmarks with the help of Pinterest, translate foreign languages thanks to Google and recognize products and enable shopping on Amazon.
Unless, of course, one happens to have a Verizon phone.
Because that Amazon feature isn’t turned on for phones on Verizon’s network.
“Bixby Vision works on all versions of the Galaxy S8, but the Amazon shopping function isn’t operational yet,” a Verizon spokesperson said in a statement. “We are working with Amazon to provide that experience, but in the meantime, you can use the existing Amazon app on your Samsung Galaxy S8 for the same photo and shopping experience.”
So Bixby could be a really powerful tool for users and commerce. It could be a big differentiator for Samsung. If they can get it up and running — and consumers get into the habit of using it.
That habit might have been easier to build when customers were playing with their new phones — an opportunity they perhaps lose depending on how much “later this spring” Bixby stands living up to its full potential.
Facial Recognition Hacked (Already)
As biometrics go, facial recognition software is a favorite, because it is by far the easiest for the user. Instead of having to correctly line-up one’s eyes for a retinal scan, or even properly place one’s finger for a fingerprint scan, all one has to do for facial recognition to work is to look at their S8. Easy, peasy.
Unfortunately, also easy peasy to hack — since within the first few days of mass release, clever users found a way to use advanced technology to defeat facial recognition.
If that problem sounds a bit like déjà vu to you — it should — Google had a similar problem when it tried to introduce its “Face Unlock” system to Android 4.0 in 2011. Google then tried to fix the problem by forcing users to blink to make the system work — so hackers figured out how to use two pictures (one with eyes open, one with eyes closed) to trick the system. Various hack videos indicate Samsung has a similar problem.
However, it does seem to be one Samsung is aware of, since facial recognition is the only one of the three biometric security protections on the S8 that cannot be used to initiate a payment with Samsung Pay.
“In order for facial recognition to be solely used for financial transactions, it would take more than four years, considering the current camera and deep-learning technology levels,” a source from Samsung told The Korea Herald. “We do not need to use facial recognition for mobile financial transactions, because there are already high-level biometric technologies, such as iris and fingerprint recognition. The question of when it will be used is meaningless,” a Samsung spokesperson said.
Still, the ability to use facial recognition to get into the phone itself from the locked home screen and the fact that it can be photo-hacked means that a PIN — though less convenient — might be the old-fashioned way to go.
The Galaxy S8 is out, which means now the waiting game shifts to the iPhone release this fall — already much anticipated, since it is also the ten-year anniversary release. And Apple now has an extra six months to iron out all those kinks — and make sure that everything it wants to launch out of the box works just fine.
Early rumors about the iPhone 8 indicate that it has been “inspired” by Samsung in many way, including its design and in proposed upgrades to Siri, specifically — and launching those features better is a real advantage. Minimally, they don’t have to teach Siri to speak English, which seems to be an issue with Bixby (who speaks fine Korean).
And it seems worth nothing that users have a very short attention span — and a limited window for being converted.
Users — finding the Bixby button somewhat useless in its current form — have started finding ways to reprogram it. One favored hack as of right now?
Using the Bixby button to launch Google’s personal assistant.