Although Amazon and Google sold millions of smart speakers in 2017, the digital assistant wars are just getting started. This year, Alexa and Google Assistant will try to expand into new places and build bigger ecosystems. And they’ll do it while fending off new threats from rivals like Apple and Samsung.
Here are the major trends to watch for as the digital assistant wars escalate:
1. Breaking Out Of The House
Now that people have gotten used to talking with Alexa at home, Amazon could try to take its virtual assistant on the road. Perhaps we’ll see some Alexa earbuds to take on Apple’s red-hot AirPods, along with more vehicle dashboard tie-ins like the ones BMW and Ford announced in 2017.
Meanwhile, Google and Apple could try to push their own assistants beyond the smartphone, where they play more of a supporting role. Apple reportedly has second-generation AirPods in the works, and Google could try to follow up on its own tepidly received Pixel Buds. And while Apple and Google already have automotive solutions in Android Auto and Apple CarPlay, respectively, perhaps we’ll see a bigger push for wireless support or even full dashboard integration – that isn’t dependent on a phone – to make voice control even easier.
2. The Battle For The Office
In November, Amazon announced plans to put an Echo on every office desk with Alexa for Business. This allows companies to set up voice routines for things like video conferencing, create their own private voice skills, and manage the Alexa commands that employees can use. It also ties into enterprise services such as Microsoft Exchange, Salesforce, and SAP Concur.
The move might have created some tension with Microsoft, which has been fashioning its own Cortana assistant as the AI of choice for enterprise. (The companies are teaming to let Alexa talk to Cortana and vice versa – a partnership that was supposed to come to fruition by the end of 2017, but didn’t make that deadline.) Google also seems likely to tweak its Assistant for a business environment, leading to a three-way battle for AI at work.
3. Another Chance For Third-Party Hardware
Do you really need a desk lamp or refrigerator that’s always listening for voice commands? Although building Alexa or Google Assistant into hardware has gotten a lot easier over the last year, that doesn’t mean it’s a good idea in the first place. Dedicated speakers like the Amazon Echo and Google Home provide better sound quality, often cost less, and are more versatile in terms of where you can put them. For third-party hardware makers, the challenge this year will be to find the use cases that actually stick.
4. The Smart Display Wars Get Real
Amazon got a head start this year in moving Alexa from speakers to screens, first with the 7-inch Echo Show smart display, and then with the diminutive Echo Spot alarm clock. Google’s answer is reportedly coming this year, with deep YouTube and Google Photos integration.
There’s just one problem: Smart displays are considerably pricier than speakers, and it’s still unclear if consumers are willing to pay the premium. (To wit: Amazon boasted of selling “millions” of Echo Dot speakers over the holidays, but made no mention of the Show.) This year, Amazon and Google will either need to develop clear reasons to buy a connected display, or find a way to bring prices down.
5. Time To Monetize
Although Amazon has boasted of having 25,000 third-party voice skills for Alexa, developers still don’t have a dependable way to make money on the platform. That’ll change in early 2018, when Amazon broadly rolls out Alexa purchases and subscriptions. Expect something similar from Google Assistant, which at the moment only supports voice transactions for physical goods and services.
One of the big issues with third-party voice skills is that people have trouble discovering and remembering to use them. Monetization schemes won’t solve the problem directly, but they could compel developers to make better skills that people want to use more often.
6. One Device, Many Assistants?
When Sonos launched its first smart speaker in October, the most notable thing about it was its promise of openness. Although it only works with Alexa at launch, Sonos plans to add Google Assistant support in 2018. Essential, the startup led by former Android boss Andy Rubin, aims to do something similar with its upcoming Essential Home device. Because each digital assistant has its own unique strengths (like Alexa for shopping, and Google Assistant for general internet queries), the best smart speakers could be the ones that let you choose.
7. New Competitors Abound
After a year of trading blows with one another, Amazon’s Echo and Google’s Home will get some new competition this year. Apple plans to launch its long-awaited HomePod speaker in early 2018 – delayed from December – while Facebook is reportedly developing a 15-inch smart screen similar to the Amazon’s Echo Show. Samsung may also launch a smart speaker that features its own Bixby assistant in the first half of 2018.
All of these new entrants will have catching up to do. Alexa and Google Assistant have gotten more sophisticated over the last year, with features like multi-user support, and they’ve been enlisting thousands of developers to create voice skills for their platform. Still, Apple’s plan to emphasize HomePod’s music chops could light a path forward: By focusing on a core competency, these newcomers might have a chance of standing out in a crowded field.
8. Real Intelligence
Google’s recent move to support multiple actions from a single voice command was something of an a-ha moment for digital assistants. Yes, of course you should be able to ask for two things at once, because that’s what you might do when speaking to an actual human. It’s a reminder of how rudimentary digital assistants are today, and how much better the experience can become through seemingly small tweaks. Expect to see a lot more of this throughout 2018.