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Ascent of Voice Assistants Tracks Rise of Mobile

· March 22, 2018

At the 2017 CES, an augmented reality toothbrush, a self-driving suitcase, and a laundry-folding robot may have grabbed headlines, but one tech trend truly stole the show: digital voice assistants.

Their de facto takeover of CES is reflective of the explosive growth and intensifying competition that has besieged the voice assistant industry over the past few years. To understand this trend, and its trajectory, we examine another breakout technology whose ascent contains stark parallels: mobile.

The Rise of Mobile Technology

Although mobile devices were first introduced in the 1980s, the rise of what we now consider “mobile devices,” i.e. smartphones, did not come until the mid-2000s. Indeed, it was not until the 2008 CES that companies announced ambitious plans and investments in mobile technology.

Specifically, Microsoft revealed its plans to double the number of Windows Mobile devices shipped in 2007, and meanwhile, at its own conference (Macworld), Apple announced it sold four million iPhones in the 200 days since it was released — i.e. 20k iPhones per day — and reiterated Apple’s commitment to mobile, stating: “it’s about the iPhone.”

At the same time, Steve Jobs, who keynoted the Macworld conference, openly acknowledged the competition undergirding the smartphone industry.

Such competition only continued to intensify in subsequent years, as a diversity of companies, like Samsung and Google, continued to release their own iterations of the smartphone.

While these companies competed by offering differentiated and more advanced products, they also sought to attract consumers by providing a platform for the creation of third-party mobile applications.

At the 2008 CES Yahoo announced it would let developers build mobile applications (i.e. widgets) for Yahoo services and, that same year — a year after the launch of its iPhone — Apple launched its app store, quickly followed by the release of the Google Play Store (then known as the Android Market).

These mobile applications, germane to seemingly every component of people’s lives — from health and fitness to food, entertainment, and socialization — helped boost and sustain demand for the smartphone.

However, despite their ultimate pervasiveness, mobile technology initially attracted a fair amount of skepticism.

Many people thought the original iPhone wasn’t worth the money since it simply combined separate, but already available devices and features, namely: “a touchscreen, a… Safari browser, an iPod-inspired music player, and a 2-megapixel camera.”

Some thought Apple’s entrance into mobile simply wasn’t noteworthy because the market was “an already very busy space with lots of choice for consumers,” and others insisted Apple should “pull the plug on the iPhone” because its entrance into mobile could jeopardize its success in its original market, computers.

In fact, one critic argued they didn’t see the point of the creation of such a multi-purpose device, stating “Is there a toaster that also knows how to brew coffee? There is no such combined device, because it would not make anything better than an individual toaster or coffee machine.”

“It is nothing more than a luxury bauble that will appeal to a few gadget freaks. In terms of its impact on the industry, the iPhone is less relevant,”  explained Matthew Lynn, a reporter at Bloomberg at the time.

The Rise of Voice Assistants

The evolution of the voice assistant has followed a similar trajectory, and even incited similar criticism.

Like mobile, voice assistant technology did not become pervasive until many years after it was first developed. The technology first appeared in the form of a digital speech recognition tool produced by IBM, called “Shoebox,” in 1961 and it could recognize 16 words. In fact, it wasn’t until the early 2000s that so-called “voice assistants” began to integrate with other technology, such as Microsoft’s Office XP and Apple’s iPhone, as “Siri.”

It was Amazon that introduced what we now commonly associate with voice-assistant technology: smart speakers. Amazon introduced its smart speaker, Amazon Echo, in November 2014, followed by Google’s smart speaker, Google Home, a few years later.

These companies’ commitment to voice assistant technology was front and center at the the 2017 CES, where Google announced the release of its newest line, “Smart Displays.” This new device will retain the voice assistant features of Google’s smart speaker, but they will also have screens that will enable consumers to view things like YouTube videos and Google Photos.

Amazon’s “Echo Show” contains similar features, allowing consumers to make video calls and watch movies, all the while interacting with its voice assistant.

Google and Amazon also allow third-parties to integrate their voice assistants with other devices and appliances.

For example, Google has embedded its voice assistant into devices like headphones and “Android Auto, so you can use it to get directions or control your music while you drive,” and an assortment of third-party devices (currently around 1,500) have adopted Google’s Assistant, enabling consumers to control devices like speakers and TVs through its Assistant.

Amazon’s voice assistant, Alexa, has similarly been integrated with a variety of devices. At CES, Panasonic announced it was “bringing Amazon Alexa to its Skip Gen IVI in-car infotainment platform,” and it was revealed that Sony’s latest TVs come with both a “Google Assistant built-in to help viewers find shows and movies with voice commands… [and] Amazon Alexa integration for hands-free control.”

Critics, however, question the necessity of embedding these voice assistants into such commonplace objects and devices, asserting that there is no “compelling argument for why [voice assistants] need to be” in these items since voice assistants “do almost nothing that can’t be done just as easily by other means — or more easily.” Skeptics acknowledge the excitement over voice assistant technology, and their potentially broad applicability, but argue that “for now, it’s just that. Hype. And it’s arguably the more overrated [sic] than any other emerging technology,” offering users only “minor convenience.”

However, the marketplace appears to disagree. U.S. consumers reportedly bought more than 14 million “smart speakers” in 2016, and sales are expected to “nearly double in 2018.”

These concerns have also not deterred new entrants from joining the already competitive voice assistant market — either by creating their own voice assistants, or embedding existing ones into their own products.

“Samsung’s Bixby, Apple’s Siri, Cortana and… Roku,” in addition to Google Home and Amazon Echo, are all major players in the voice assistant market, and were all present at CES, but hundreds of newer companies also displayed their voice assistant technology alongside them. And, as DisCo has previously reported, many already established companies are deviating from their traditional business plans to enter the voice assistant market.

Last month the Spanish telecommunications provider Telefonica introduced its new voice assistant, Aura, and the electronics company Samsung has created its own smart speaker due out later this year. Spotify, the Swedish music streaming site, is also reportedly working on “its first physical products,” and Apple, which was originally developed to sell personal computers, released its own smart speaker, HomePod, in January.

Meanwhile LG and Samsung recently announced they’re embedding Samsung’s voice assistant Bixby into refrigerators; Samsung revealed the launch of its new “smart” washing machine; and a thermostat featuring “Windows 10 IoT Core and Microsoft’s Cortana virtual assistant” is being produced by Johnson Controls.

Substituting Voice Assistants for Smartphones?

Although these “smart” refrigerators and washing machines have yet to replace “traditional,” non-voice assistant embedded ones, voice assistants, at least in some capacities, seem to be replacing one device: the smartphone.

In one survey, 34% of respondents reported that the time they spend using a smart speaker has replaced time they used to spend with a smartphone.

This percentage could increase in the coming years, as voice assistants continue to be embedded into household objects and devices, and ownership of smart speakers continues to rise.

According to some, this phenomenon is simply the natural evolution of computing. As one Guardian reporter explained, “voice is seen as the… next step on from the smartphone, which in turn overtook the desktop computer.”

Innovation

New technologies are constantly emerging that promise to change our lives for the better. These disruptive technologies give us an increase in choice, make technologies more accessible, make things more affordable, and give consumers a voice. And the pace of innovation has only quickened in recent years, as the Internet has enabled a wave of new, inter-connected devices that have benefited consumers around the world, seemingly in all aspects of their lives. Preserving an innovation-friendly market is, therefore, tantamount not only to businesses but society at large.