Enlarge /. Bixby on the Galaxy S9.
Reuters and Bloomberg both independently report that Google is pushing Samsung to withdraw from its dual Android ecosystem and instead promote Google Apps. On both websites, a "correspondence" was found between the two companies, in which Google urged Samsung to advertise the Play Store and Google Assistant via the Galaxy App Store and Samsung's Bixby Assistant. Google appeared to be ready to open its wallet and pay Samsung for it.
Bloomberg's interpretation of the negotiations is fairly vague, stating that the deal would "promote Google's digital assistant and play store for apps on (Samsung) devices". The later Reuters report is much more specific, saying that Samsung is "considering removing its virtual assistant Bixby and the Galaxy Apps Store from their mobile devices." Reuters continues: "Google has more lucrative terms for Samsung than in previous deals if it withdraws from its app strategy." Part of Google's immense web of Android protection is sharing ad revenue and Play Store app revenue with phone manufacturers. If Samsung is offered a higher stake, this is an easy way to bribe the South Korean company for submission.
Whether Samsung would actually be willing to kill Bixby and the Galaxy App Store is in the air. Samsung has invested a lot of money in Bixby since its launch in 2017, but Bixby has not been very successful. Samsung acquired Viv Labs, an assistant startup founded by Siri developers, and used the company to improve Bixby. However, Samsung's voice assistant still can't be in the same amount as Google Assistant, Apple's Siri and Amazon Alexa.
Voice assistants are primarily interfaces to a search engine and a service ecosystem, two things that Samsung doesn't really invest in. So it was difficult for the company to turn Bixby into something useful. If you say "make a note" where are you headed? Google and Apple both have an extensive ecosystem for notes, music, reminders, calendar events, photos, maps, and more, all available on your phone and the Internet. Due to Samsung's ecosystem gap, Bixby relies on a cobbled network of third-party services or control of apps on your Samsung phone, which are primarily forks of Google's basic Android apps.
Samsung's Bixby ships on its Android devices, Tizen smartwatches, and some fridges (no, really). But that's about it. Samsung announced a Bixby Smart Speaker as "Galaxy Home" in 2018, but almost two years have passed and the product is nowhere to be seen. Samsung has opted for a cheaper "Galaxy Home Mini" instead, but Home Mini never seems to have become a commercial product either. Samsung offered it as a free bonus on some pre-orders for the Galaxy S20 in South Korea, but it's not for sale. The real test of a voice assistant is a smart speaker that has no interface other than voice, and Samsung doesn't seem to be confident that Bixby can do it. The main problem I see in killing Bixby is that Samsung's smartwatches would remain without voice assistants at all. I doubt that Google would create Google Assistant for Tizen watches.
The Samsung Galaxy App Store is used to update the main Samsung Android apps that come with a phone. However, in most countries there is no reason to keep them. It is difficult to rely solely on the Play Store as Google Play is not available in China. Samsung's own App Store is therefore useful in this country. However, the company's App Store does not seem to be quite successful in China either – the AppInChina App Store Index rates Samsung as the 15th most popular app store in China.
Enlarge /. The standard setup of the Galaxy S20 Ultra with a large white Google search bar, the Galaxy App Store and the Play Store on the home screen.
It's hard for me to imagine Samsung giving up Bixby and the Galaxy App Store if it was so concerned about its trust in Google in the past. Bloomberg blames the corona virus for keeping Samsung open to something like this: "The drop in mobile device demand during the Covid 19 pandemic has increased the company's need for sales and weakened its negotiating position with a key partner."
Google products currently have a very strong standard placement on Samsung phones. Both the Play Store and the Google search bar appear on the first home screen, and Google is the default search engine. When we last saw the license terms for the Play Store and the Google app for Android, the location and standard of Google services were anchored in the contract. For example, Google has set the location of the search bar and Play Store icons for licensing the company's closed-source Android apps. Google wanted spots on the home screen.
The EU has actually held Google accountable for its placement rules, declaring that Google's license terms are anti-competitive. Google's argument was that the development of Android OEMs was offered free of charge, and the inclusion and placement of these apps financed the development through advertising and app revenue. Google's concession to EU regulators was to add a paid flexibility level to Google Play licensing, at which OEMs could pay up to $ 40 to unbundle Google's apps and placement requirements.
Nothing in Google’s license terms prevents phone manufacturers from building competing and duplicate services. On a Samsung phone, the Galaxy App Store is also on the home screen next to the Play Store. Bixby usually gets its own dedicated hardware button on the side of a Samsung phone. This can now be transferred to another app, but you cannot specifically assign it to the Google Assistant.
Reuters says that "the companies intend to complete the terms by Friday." The launch of the Samsung Galaxy Note 20 is next week, which seems a little early to detect dramatic software changes. But we will look for the importance of Bixby in the company's presentation.