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Samsung is playing catch-up with Apple's Siri and the Google Assistant

  • Bixby 2.0 will be able to recognize different people, just like Amazon's Alexa and Google's Assistant.
  • In 2018 the company will be releasing a software development kit for Bixby for third-party developers to work with.
DJ Koh, president of mobile communications business at Samsung, holds up the Samsung Galaxy Note 8 smartphone during a launch event for the new product, August 23, 2017.
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DJ Koh, president of mobile communications business at Samsung, holds up the Samsung Galaxy Note 8 smartphone during a launch event for the new product, August 23, 2017.

Samsung knows its Bixby virtual assistant needs to be smarter. The company announced version 2.0 of the assistant on Wednesday at its developer conference in San Francisco.

Among the upcoming improvements, Bixby will be able to recognize different people speaking to it. That feature has recently come to the Amazon Echo and Google Home smart speakers, which come with Alexa and the Google Assistant, respectively.

It's not clear when the upgraded Bixby will become available. Samsung said it will release a software development kit to select third-party developers in a private beta before making it available to any developer in 2018.

The public first got a feel for what the original Bixby could do when Samsung released its Galaxy S8 smartphone earlier this year. That phone — like the newer Samsung Galaxy Note8 smartphone — comes with a button dedicated to paging a public preview version of Bixby. The full assistant rolled out to English speakers in the U.S. just three months ago.

The reviews of Bixby haven't all been glowing. One writer at Engadget noted that the Google Assistant's speech recognition was "significantly more accurate" than Bixby's.

Samsung has emphasized Bixby's ability to go into individual apps and do things on behalf of people. But it doesn't always work as intended. "I still can't trust that it will do what I want it to," as a writer with the Verge put it. As a result, the writer has opted to do things himself the old way — by tapping and swiping on the display.

Samsung is integrating the technology from Viv Labs — the start-up Samsung acquired whose team previously worked on Siri — into Bixby, which could help make it a better alternative to the Google Assistant.

"For example, users can just say, 'I want to order a large pepperoni pizza with half mushrooms. Please send it to my office within 30 minutes.' Bixby will take care of it — no more robot speak," said Dag Kittlaus, a vice president of Samsung and previously Viv Labs' co-founder and CEO.

Third-party developers who integrate Bixby into their apps will be able to generate money in a marketplace model, Kittlaus said.

In 2018 Samsung will start shipping TVs with Bixby onboard in the U.S. and in Korea, chief product officer Gilles BianRosa said.

But Samsung also has an eye toward making Bixby work on devices that don't support it out of the box. Injong Rhee, chief technology officer and executive vice president of software and services for Samsung's mobile communications business, demonstrated how Bixby could work with a speaker by connecting it to a special dongle that contains a microphone and wi-fi connectivity. Rhee also showed how the technology can send associated visual content to a separate display.

Bixby now has 10 million active users, the company says.