Amazon’s Alexa voice assistant was clearly the star of CES this year. No single consumer electronics device dominated coverage but lots of individual devices incorporated Alexa as their voice assistant of choice. The announcements ranged from Echo clones to home robots to cars and smartphones. It was clear Amazon had entirely captured the market for voice platforms. Only one or two integrations of the Google Assistant were announced and those are both future rather than present integrations.
It would be easy off the back of all this to say Amazon had won the voice assistant battle once and for all but I actually see two possible futures for Alexa, with very different outcomes for Amazon and its many partners.
Future 1: Amazon continues to dominate
The first possible future for Alexa is one where the current trends mostly continue and even accelerate. Amazon’s own Alexa-based products continue to sell well, with Dot probably taking a greater share of sales going forward relative to Echo (or Tap), selling into the tens of millions of installed units in the next couple of years. On top of that, the adoption by third parties that was so evident at CES continues, with even more devices offering integration. Importantly, Alexa starts to make an appearance in Android smartphones, making it as pervasive and ubiquitous as existing smartphone-based assistants, possibly even making an appearance in another round of Amazon smartphones.
What we end up with in this scenario is a massive ecosystem of devices which all offer users access to Alexa and its functionality. These devices perform their functions well, recognizing voice commands effectively, responding appropriately, and adding value to users’ lives. Because they’re all part of the same ecosystem, they work the same way — commands issued through one are reflected on the others. Amazon benefits from owning a massive new user interface and platform which can be used not just to push its e-commerce sales but to take an increasingly large share of media and content consumption across video, music, audiobooks, and more.
This scenario also assumes major competitors either don’t launch competing products or those products fail to take off. Google has, of course, already launched its Home device but, thus far, sales are far lower than Amazon’s and are handicapped by a lack of awareness and the lack of a major e-commerce channel. The Google Assistant, meanwhile, should be the default option for Android OEMs in all their devices but the way in which Google has held it back as it promotes its own hardware has also held it back, perhaps fatally, as a third party voice platform. If that doesn’t change, if Microsoft’s Windows-based Cortana strategy falls short, and Apple’s reticence to participate in this market continues, Amazon dominates with its devices and those third party products using its ecosystem.
Future 2: Cracks start to appear in the Alexa ecosystem
The secrets of Echo’s success
I want, though, to paint an alternative future for Alexa, one which is less rosy and more complex. Amazon’s genius in launching the Echo and Alexa was to pick a blank slate rather than an existing category for its experiments with voice. Instead of competing with another smartphone-based voice assistant, Amazon chose to compete in the home, with its relative quiet and better internet connectivity, and a device that was optimized for specific use cases: fantastic voice recognition and great audio output, even from across the room. That had two major advantages: first, it wasn’t going head to head with powerful entrenched competitors and second, it could deliver far better performance around voice recognition than smartphone-based systems.
The Echo performs fantastically well at what it does. Its voice recognition is indeed very good, inviting highly favorable comparisons to Siri and the like. It’s this success in providing great voice experiences that have propelled sales of its own devices and prompted other companies to build their own as well. The assumption on all sides is it’s Alexa that powers these phenomenal experiences and the Alexa Voice Service for device makers will power similar experiences on other devices.
Amazon’s limited control over Alexa devices
However, one look at Amazon’s guidelines for those wishing to incorporate Alexa Voice Service into their devices should prompt at least some skepticism. Echo and Echo Dot famously have a 7-mic array built into the top of the device, with beam forming, enhanced noise cancelation, and more helping to ensure the device does a phenomenal job of picking up your voice from up to 20 feet away. But look at the minimum specs for Alexa-powered devices and you quickly realize many of these devices won’t match up on hardware – the minimum standard for microphones is just one and additional technologies like noise reduction, acoustic echo cancellation, and beam forming are entirely optional.
Also optional is “wake word” support – in other words, the always-listening function that waits to hear Alexa (or another word of the user’s choice) and then springs into life. The Amazon Tap doesn’t offer this feature (and was hammered in reviews for it) because the “across the room” use case is a key part of Echo’s appeal. Even when a wake word is supported, Amazon only requires a minimum of one microphone for near-field recognition and just two for far-field (20 foot) recognition.
Where this second future scenario diverges from the first is the sheer range of Alexa-enabled hardware starts to put many devices into the market that don’t have nearly the appeal of Amazon’s own. Lenovo’s Echo clones appear to be using an 8-mic array and may very well perform at exactly the same level or better but the Huawei Mate 9 smartphone, which is due to incorporate Alexa later this year, has just 4 microphones and the device obviously wasn’t built with optimal voice recognition in mind. In a rush to get products to market, we’ll see many vendors putting out devices with the bare minimum specs and prominent Alexa-related branding.
All it will take at this point is a handful of terrible reviews for Alexa-powered speakers and other devices and the Alexa brand will quickly become tarnished. At that point, Amazon’s admirable openness with the Alexa tools may come to be seen as a huge mistake because it’s set so few limits on what can be done with the service and its brand. Even if third parties are committed to providing the best possible experience, voice recognition on a smartphone or other smaller devices likely is never going to match up to the Echo’s quality, which means the true Alexa experience will likely remain elusive outside of the home. Any perceived quality advantage will, therefore, fade as well, making Alexa a lot less appealing.
More compelling competitors
Meanwhile, competitors will move past their slow start in responding to the Echo and Alexa and will begin producing more compelling alternatives. I see no reason why competitors shouldn’t be able to build devices which perform at least as well, in terms of voice recognition, as Echo given the same parameters (home use, large devices, mic arrays designed for voice recognition). Indeed, Google’s Home has already demonstrated there’s no special magic there. In addition, players like Google and Apple have one huge advantage – they already own massive installed bases of hundreds of millions of devices running their operating systems and integrated voice assistants.
Google’s early misstep in limiting the Google Assistant to its own devices will be overcome in the next few months as it makes it available to Android OEMs more broadly and, at that point, its Home device will become a lot more compelling. Apple, too, has the potential to do really interesting things in the home speaker space should it choose to do so, given the increasing scope and availability of Siri and its AirPlay audio and video casting technology. Again, the appeal of using the same assistant everywhere, tightly integrated into devices, will be a big advantage over Amazon’s looser Alexa ecosystem.
Which future plays out?
On balance, I’m inclined to think the future will look rather more like the second scenario I’ve painted than the first. That is to say, I think Amazon’s advantages in the field of voice assistants are mostly temporary and, to some extent, illusory. Competitors will catch up fast in the home and exceed its capabilities outside it. That doesn’t mean Amazon can’t build a decent business with a more limited scope of opportunity around its first party devices and a handful of really compelling third party devices in an ecosystem but I suspect its future will be a lot less bright than its present in this space.