Many of the largest consumer digital technology companies have, or are preparing to introduce, a digital (or, virtual) assistant. The list includes Alibaba (AliGenie), Amazon (Alexa), Apple (Siri), Baidu (DuerOS), Facebook (M/Aloha), Google (Assistant), Line (Clova), Microsoft (Cortana), Samsung (Bixby), Xiaomi (Xiao Ai), plus any number of lesser-known assistants.
Although this is partly driven simply by advances in machine learning—digital assistants are happening now because they couldn’t happen before—the larger reason for all the interest is because of how consumer internet technology is changing—and how it’s set to change even more in the coming years.
Ten years ago we mostly accessed the internet on desktop (or laptop) computers. Five years ago it would have largely been a mix of desktops, tablets, and smartphones. Today we can add smart speakers, smart watches, and in-car systems. Over the next five years we’ll see the internet embedded into more of the world around us, from earphones to smart home objects and smart garments, to augmented reality glasses.
The internet will be with us all day, every day, everywhere. No longer experienced solely through screens or speakers, there will be multiple surfaces capable of providing access to systems and services with contextual interactions. You might ask a question with your voice, your keyboard, or your camera. You might get a response through a screen, a speaker, or vibrations. You might sign up for an event on your phone, ask your smart speaker for directions, be guided to your destination by signals in your jacket, and ask questions about the schedule through your headphones.
The controller for all this context will be your digital assistant: a meta-operating-system across all the surfaces of your interactions with the internet. Your assistant will have the history of your behaviour and the future of your actions. It will need to be smart and capable enough to manage your conversations across the meta-OS so you don’t need to keep repeating information.
(For all this to work seamlessly you’ll have to pick an assistant; the context across surfaces won’t be useful if Google has your calendar, Apple has your music, and Alexa has your purchase history. At some point soon you’ll need to decide upon a single assistant, and that will define your future choices of hardware; there will be a cost to switching.)
There’s a phrase that I’ve been repeating to my colleagues for months now: Amazon’s end goal isn’t an Echo in every home, it’s Alexa in every thing. This was confirmed at their hardware announcement this week, which introduced new versions of their Echo smart speaker range, and devices to add Alexa to an existing stereo system, and to your car. But most interestingly of all, a pair of Alexa-enhanced common household items; neither has Alexa embedded, but each connects to an Echo device by Bluetooth and gains some special powers through that connection.
The first, a standard rotary wall clock with a ring of LEDs around the face that shows any timers set with Alexa (timers are one of the most popular uses any assistant). The second, a microwave oven that’s not smart by itself, but has a button that activates the connected Echo and switches its context to that of the microwave, working as a proxy voice interface without requiring linguistic gymnastics (e.g. “Alexa, tell my microwave to cook on full power for ten minutes” becomes simply “full power for ten minutes”).
Could this be enabled through an Alexa skill? Of course. But, putting Alexa inside and giving it a button gives Alexa permanence.What is the Deal with the Alexa Powered Microwave? It’s a Message to Appliance Makers.
With these, Amazon is showing how a household powered by Alexa can be more useful. A big step to making this happen came with the announcement of Alexa Connect Kit, a small chipset that device manufacturers can put into their own products to make them Alexa-enhanced too. Amazon, who don’t have their own phone or computer operating system, are creating one for your home instead.
Eventually, Alexa will be commonplace enough that you’ll find yourself buying something without realizing it’s even there.Everything is an Alexa Device Now
While Amazon’s ambition is to make Alexa the meta-OS for your home, they’re not alone in that. All the other companies I listed in the opening paragraph want to do the same. Even if some assistants (Assistant, Bixby, Siri, and Xiao Ai) started in your phone OS, some (Aloha and Clova) in a messaging app, and some (Cortana) in your computer, (almost) all of them have a smart speaker. But none of them thinks that’s sufficient.
The end goal isn’t a smart speaker in every home, it’s an assistant in every thing. And every company wants your assistant to be theirs.