Smart speakers broke into mainstream consciousness in 2017. With voice interaction picking up steam, will 2018 be the year it starts to take over?
The Amazon Echo is currently on sale in 34 countries and has racked up ‘tens of millions’ of devices sold, boasts over 25,000 third party skills, holds around 70% of the smart speaker market, and is selling faster than the iPhone in its early days. Rival Google Home is on sale in 6 countries with over 7 million in sales and holds most of the remaining 25% of the smart speaker market. Both notched up record sales over the 2017 Christmas period, with the Alexa and Home companion apps topping the download charts across all categories for both iOS and Android.
With comScore predicting voice will drive 50% of search on mobile by 2020, and Gartner placing virtual assistants, the connected home, machine learning, and other smart speaker-related technologies near the top of the ‘peak of inflated expectations’ in their annual Hype Cycle, 2017 was the year of ‘peak hype’ for voice interaction.
Has this set us up for 2018 to be the year voice interaction starts to take over? Here’s our thoughts.
With HomePod Apple is doing what it does best; high quality hardware at a premium price point. Whether this is enough to combat Amazon’s strategy of putting Amazon absolutely everywhere through third party products and the impulse-purchase-friendly £35/$29 price tag on the Echo Dot remains to be seen, but Apple’s historic reputation for user experience could pressure Amazon and Google to address the clunky conversations their services often offer.
The addition of Google Home to the market sped up Amazon’s feature releases, with Skills for Kids, Alexa for Business, and product line extensions like Echo Show and Echo Look being added, while Google rolled out its own additions like Broadcast, and new Home Max and Home Mini devices.
With Amazon continuing to outsell Google three-to-one, the pressure will also mount on Google to keep the new features coming, bringing their deeper experience in AI and natural language technologies to bear, as well as leverage their much larger ecosystem of phones, wearables, tablets, laptops, Chromecasts, and browsers to try and gain an edge on Amazon.
We’re approaching the ‘big new things added each time’ phase that smartphones went through in the early 2010s, with biometrics, presence detection, better state maintenance, and integrated multi-platform presences for assistants all anticipated in the coming few years.
2017 was full of articles declaring that voice interfaces would ‘replace’ apps and we would do everything by voice. While the more level headed took these with a pinch of salt, it did highlight that much of the market didn’t really seem to know exactly where and how voice could add value.
It’s taken time, but in the latter half of 2017 we started to see forward thinking brands approach us with some more carefully considered applications of voice. Checklists, searching for discrete information amid banks of data like a single transaction in a credit card statement, enacting multiple actions from a single command like turning multiple smart home devices on or off, and handsfree access to information like a recipe while cooking are just some of the situations in which voice offers a unique advantage over alternate interfaces.
The smart home was one of the first spaces voice has made a big impact in, cars look next in line for 2018, while enterprises may follow in 2019. Either way 2018 will be the year when voice designers and developers start to nail the unique use cases of voice.
Despite the growing library of 25,000 third party Alexa skills, native features like timers, shopping lists, alarms, and music continue to be the Echo’s most popular uses, there has yet to emerge a must-have third party experience. While this is in part due to the market figuring out the right use cases as mentioned above, it’s also partly down to concerns and restrictions around security and privacy, the lack of a benchmark payment process, and a tension over brand control between smart speaker retailers and third parties (interacting with a third party skill doesn’t feel like you’re interacting with a brand in the same way an app does).
New security features, either through new hardware technologies like biometrics, passing security to verified devices like phones or wearables, or some other as-yet-unseen method, should ease many issues around security and privacy, and the subsequent introduction of payments will make the devices viable sales channels for brands. The tension over brand controls will likely not be solved this year, although third party interactions will become easier, as demonstrated by Google Home’s new ability to invoke third party actions without needing to know their name.
As with all technologies, the growth and maturation of the voice market is a marathon, not a sprint. It may be a cliche to remember that the original iPhone had no GPS, no third party apps, no video recording, and no front facing camera. It can be easy to criticise the shortcomings of smart speakers without seeing their potential, that said there are still some key areas where smart speakers are still lacking.
They still can’t control televisions (very well). For all their smart home supremacy, neither Amazon Echo nor Google Home are very good when it comes to one of the most dominant screens in the home. Yes Amazon has Alexa on FireTV, Apple has Siri on the AppleTV, and Dish Network has an Alexa skill for controlling their set top boxes, but by this point we want to walk into my living room, collapse on the sofa and say ‘Alexa play Stranger Things on the tv’ and for it to just work.
They are still largely stuck in one device. Alexa, Siri, and Google Assistant are installed in many different types of device, but interactions rarely pass between devices in a useful manner. Google did demonstrate multi-device interactions in 2017, but achieving the ‘Star Trek’ vision for voice assistants will require them to be accessible through a broader range of devices and services.
Some PC manufacturers have announced new product lines featuring Alexa, but it still remains a gap in the market. Again, voice interaction has existed on desktops for some time in various forms, but a completely handsfree “Alexa, open up ASOS on my desktop” is still beyond our grasp. While it may seem that PCs are falling from favour in the home, a huge amount of people spend most of their working day sat before one, and “Alexa, open up a background tab and find flights to Berlin” would certainly be welcome around our studios.
2018 won’t be the year when voice becomes ubiquitous, but many of the frictions and kinks in the tech and the user experience will be smoothed out. Alexa in particular will find its way into many more settings, from the car to the workplace, and into more and more devices and services. With 25% to 40% of UK households expected to have an Echo by the end of 2018, there is a ready audience for brands to engage with. While 2018 will still be a year of exploration, it will set the stage for truly impactful uses to arrive in 2019.