Let the voice-activated battle commence.
Over the last 18 months, Amazon’s Alexa has ruled the voice-controlled personal assistant market. With over five million units sold in the United States alone, the Amazon Echo is the dominant device among voice user interfaces (non-smartphone division) and is likely to be sitting under thousands of Christmas trees on December 25.
As the “brain” behind the Amazon Echo, Alexa has gone from being a cult hero to an all-listening and (sometimes) all-knowing presence in people’s lives, thanks to the over 5,000 “skills” that she now possesses.
Alexa is the voice of the personal assistant sector. But her place at the top of the pile is coming under attack.
The reason is simple: Amazon’s success with its Echo device has drawn envious glances from other tech companies who knew that they had been caught with their proverbial trousers down.
This week, both Google and Microsoft upped the personal assistant stakes. And Alexa responded.
Why Alexa Is Looking Over Its Shoulder
Google Home has only been available to consumers for a few weeks but Google has already taken note of Amazon’s Alexa playbook and opened up its Google Assistant platform—which anchors the device—to developers.
In some ways, Google Home is seen as the acid test for voice-activated devices. The device is a stand-alone speaker that can answer questions, run a smart home and provide people with an easy alternative to opening an app on a smartphone.
According to a blog post, developers will be able to build conversational skills for the Google Assistant that will deliver information, service and assistance to Google Home owners. The major bonus for anybody sitting on the fence as to which personal assistant to buy is that people will be able to actually have a contextual conversation with Google Home … which is often extremely tricky with Alexa.
Google calls these experiences “conversation actions,” which is helpfully explained in the video below:
Not to be outdone, Microsoft released a promotional video teaser itself.
Ars Technica reported that the company had partnered with audio equipment manufacturer Harmon Kardon to build a—wait for it—cylinder-shaped speaker device that plays music and will likely answer questions or run smart devices.
“We believe that everyone deserves a personal assistant,” said Microsoft, in a blog post. “One to help you cope as you battle to stay on top of everything, from work to your home life. Calendars, communications and commitments. An assistant that is available everywhere you need it, working in concert with the experts you rely on to get things done.”
Microsoft’s trump card is the integration with its Cortana operating system. According to the blog, the speaker is only the start. Starting in 2017, developers will have access to a Cortana Skills Kit and an Internet of Things-specific Cortana Devices SDK, both of which have Alexa firmly in their sights.
Cortana will be included in the IoT Core Edition of the forthcoming Windows 10 Creators Update, Microsoft said. The release of the Cortana Devices SDK (and accompanying video) is a clear indication that Microsoft sees a future in voice-activated devices, although the Cortana Devices SDK plus the Cortana Skills Kit will remain in private preview until 2017.
On the plus side, Microsoft plans to release its Harmon Kardon-built speaker in February 2017. Provided that the device is not a red herring, this will make the voice-activated personal assistant market extremely competitive.
We Need More Voice User Interfaces
Alexa does have one element that is strongly in her favor … she has had a two-year head start.
Being ahead of the game is crucial in gaining audience share and creating customer experiences. GeekWire reported that the Amazon Echo is reportedly on back order until the beginning of 2017 which just shows how popular the device has become.
Alexa is also moving into the enterprise space. Amazon has partnered with hotel chain Wynn Resorts to put an Amazon Echo into every single room at Wynn Las Vegas—an industry first, according to a press release.
“The thing that Amazon has done with Alexa is quite perfect,” said Wynn Resorts chairman and CEO Steve Wynn. “If I have ever seen anything in my 49 years of developing resorts that has made our job of delivering a perfect experience to our guests easier and help us get to another level, it is Alexa. The ability to talk to your room is effortlessly convenient.”
Wynn guests will be able to control numerous hotel room functions just by asking Alexa—lights, temperature, TV and curtains—with more personal assistant features added in the near future. Wynn Las Vegas has 4,748 rooms, which gives Amazon the perfect platform to showcase what the Echo can do in a non-residential setting.
There is a growing consensus that voice user interfaces will become less of a niche product and enter the mainstream in the not so distant future. For the moment, these personal assistants are often perceived as something of a novelty but anybody who owns one knows that speaking out loud is less onerous than opening an app.
What is more interesting is that these next-generation VUIs are quickly becoming a new tech battleground.
Amazon caught everybody off guard with the success of Alexa but the genie is now out of the bottle. And the winner is likely to be the device that not only tells us the time or turns off the lights but also makes our lives easier on a daily basis. My money is on Alexa … which will come as no surprise to my colleagues at ARC’s publisher Applause.
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