Not All Voice Assistants are Created Equal
This post was excerpted and adapted from Street Fight’s latest report, Local’s Voice-Based Future: The Rise of AI and Voice Search. Download the full report here, and stay tuned for more insights from Street Fight.
Voice search continues to show signs of being a formidable modality for finding things. Gartner has projected that 20 percent of all user interactions on smartphones will happen through voice by next year.
Speech-to-text processing and AI are meanwhile getting better by the day. Google Assistant is now at 95% accuracy. Today that involves simple tasks. Tomorrow it will involve more personalized and AI-fueled actions.
For local commerce specifically, voice search could find lots of utility. Voice is inherent to local search and discovery, due to immediacy and sometimes hands-free requirements during high-intent micro-moments like shopping and driving.
Further in support of voice search, highly motivated tech giants are driving it. Google, for example, puts lots of muscle behind voice (and visual) search to counterbalance text search’s app-driven displacement on smartphones.
But it doesn’t end there. Several tech giants are chasing voice search and assistant apps. They’re motivated by different factors—each seeing voice as a way to support, grow, and protect their unique core businesses.
Before we get into who’s doing what in voice search, it’s first important to ask the question of Why? Answering that question can help triangulate where the technology may be headed next, driven by the motivations of the tech giants leading it.
This is similar to the question of why tech giants ever enter and invest in new areas: to protect or grow a core revenue stream. As mentioned, Google is cultivating voice to counterbalance the (typed) search volume it loses to app engagement.
Amazon is keen on voice to get you to buy more stuff—its core business. It sees Echo devices as a direct consumer touch point, which it failed to establish with the Fire phone. This is behind the parade of Alexa-embedded devices launched last week.
Apple, on the other hand, makes the majority of its revenue on hardware sales. And most moves it makes are to make iThings more attractive, with a greater set of native features. This is Siri’s job, though its effectiveness so far is debatable.
The same goes for Samsung and its voice assistant Bixby. And similar core-revenue driving reasons exist with Microsoft/Cortana’s enterprise approach, and all the way down the line for companies (Facebook?) cultivating voice search.
Related to the question of why? is where? Where will voice search innovation happen and on what devices and technologies will it be delivered? The reason we raise this question is because the matter of where has been largely misunderstood.
When evaluating the world of voice search and digital assistants, generalist tech coverage has painted the picture of an opportunity that resides mostly with in-home devices like Amazon Echo. But the real scale will happen elsewhere.
The total installed base of in-home voice assistant devices is about 50 million in the U.S. Smartphones, conversely, total 2.6 billion globally. That plus evolving computational muscle and AI will make them a fitting vessel for voice search.
Moreover, smartphones are with you all day, giving them the edge in at-hand availability and eligible time of use. There’s also a more commercially expansive set of queries when out of home locally, where 90 percent of retail spending happens.
At-home devices like Echo are great for weather updates, egg timers, or e-commerce (again, Amazon’s end game). But commercial-intent use cases and search terms are more likely on the smartphone.
Supporting this claim, top activities performed on devices like Amazon Echo and Google Home include ‘portal functions’ like weather and setting timers. The Information reports that commerce largely isn’t happening on these devices.
Placing Your Chips
The reason all of the above is important: to inform decisions about where to place one’s chips. Companies and developers interested in tapping into the voice search revolution will be faced with a platform choice.
The tech media has crowned Amazon the king of digital assistants, but that’s a narrow view into a small corner of the voice opportunity. In the much larger smartphone arena, Amazon is questionably positioned without a mobile device or OS.
In fact, those particular touch points are dominated by other tech giants in the voice search competitive field—namely, Apple and Google. We’ll pick up there in the next installation of this series. Meanwhile, you can download the full report here.
Mike Boland is Street Fight’s lead analyst, author of the Road Map column, and producer of the Heard on the Street podcast. He covers AR & VR as chief analyst of ARtillry Intelligence and SF President of the VR/AR Association. He has been an analyst in the local space since 2005, covering mobile, social, and emerging tech.