On Christmas morning, as my mom and I hurriedly rushed around my kitchen making final preparations, a third voice would occasionally interject into our conversations. Sitting at my counter was Alexa, helping me through the process by answering questions, setting timers and even flipping on holiday music at our request.
I’ve been living with Alexa for roughly two years now and have grown accustomed to our constant banter. But, for my mom, it’s still a very new and novel experience. When my mom speaks to Alexa, she might recognize she’s speaking to a computer, but she probably doesn’t consider that computer is actually thousands of miles away and she probably doesn’t realize the way we talked to that computer on Christmas morning is the new face of computing.
The graphical user interface (GUI) wasn’t new when it was introduced in 1981 by Xerox and popularized to the masses in 1984 by Apple’s Macintosh computer. A GUI didn’t represent a new technical way of computing but it was a crucial evolution in how we interact with computers. Think of the impact the GUI had on how we used computers and what we used computers for. Think of how it changed our conception of computing.
The smartphone was created in the 1990s but it wasn’t until 2007, with the advent of Apple’s iPhone, that smartphones reached an important inflection point in consumer adoption. Today, 75 percent of U.S. households own a smartphone, according to research from the Consumer Technology Association (CTA).
The touchscreen interface represented the next paradigm shift in computing, ushering in a new way of thinking about computing and bringing into existence new applications.
Smartphone computing shares an important heritage and legacy with the GUI introduced in the early 1980s. If you’re old enough to remember computing before GUIs, can you imagine computing on a smartphone using command prompts? GUIs in the era of desktops improved computing. It was the transformation to a graphic interface that ultimately launched the smartphone era of apps.
Vocal computing will do the same thing for the future of computing. Vocal computing isn’t perfect. Alexa isn’t always certain what I’m asking. Google Home doesn’t always provide an answer. Siri can’t always help my sons when they ask complex questions. Like a first date, we are still learning each other.
Software layers and form factors change our computing experience. We’ve seen this throughout the history of computing – from the earliest mainframes to the computers we call phones and carry in our pockets. In all the same ways, vocal computing is just an extension of what we already know – it’s a more natural and intuitive interface.
Let’s not overlook just how transformative this new interface can be. Imagine someday computing on our bikes, in our cars, while we are walking or lying in bed. With voice, every environment can be touched by computing.