With Google Assistant and Amazon's Alexa in the ascendancy, the future of Apple's Siri and Samsung's Bixby remains uncertain
In the battle of AI voice assistants, Google is drowning Siri
As the dust settles from another Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas, one thing is clear: competition over consumer AI platforms is set to significantly intensify in 2018, as some of the biggest names in tech seek to persuade people the world over to welcome their different voice assistants into homes, phones, cars and offices.
Google came out swinging at the annual tech event last week, announcing the integration of its Google Assistant with a wide array of gadgets, appliances and cars. A host of product makers also announced compatibility with Amazon’s Alexa, proving that the online retailer was not going to cede the spotlight so easily.
There’s little doubt now that the long-promised voice-controlled future – where people interact with appliances, vehicles and devices of all sorts simply by talking to them – is finally here, with plenty of money to be made for those who can get the experience right.
The number of AI-capable devices is set to grow to 7.5 billion by 2021, according to UK-based research analysts Ovum. Smartphones will lead the way, but AI assistants such as Samsung’s Bixby and Apple’s Siri will increasingly find their way into smart home products, such as speakers, televisions and other home appliances.
The revenue from such smart-home products is due to grow by a compound annual rate of 13 per cent to US$137 billion by 2023, according to Seattle-based research firm Markets and Markets.
Google and Amazon’s voice assistants appear to be very much in the ascendancy, with dozens of third-party device manufacturers piling onto their platforms. The fate of the other main contenders in the market - Apple’s Siri, Samsung’s Bixby and Microsoft’s Cortana – now comes into question.
On the face of it, the battle of the voice assistants resembles the past decade’s fight between mobile operating systems, when smartphone app designers had to choose where to spend their limited development resources.
Amazon and Google against the rest, on the face of it, looks a little like Android and iOS versus BlackBerry, Windows Mobile and others, not to mention the competition between computer operating systems in years gone by.
Viewed through that lens, the future doesn’t look good for Apple, Samsung and Microsoft. But this time around, the fight is likely to be different.
While history showed there was room for only two or three players in the PC and mobile epochs, there will likely be more opportunities in voice AI – provided that competitors understand their strengths and weaknesses and embrace their niches.
First up, there’s Microsoft. With Cortana, the computing giant hoped to become a voice power on PCs. But with Amazon having released Alexa for PCs last year and a similar move by Google all but inevitable, Microsoft will likely need to adjust its plans.
Early-mover advantage is particularly important with AI, since its effectiveness grows exponentially alongside the data it gathers. If Alexa and Google Assistant already do a good job at combing the web for queries, controlling home devices and delivering news reports, they’re only going to get better as they learn from an ever-growing trove of user-supplied information.
Cortana is well behind and, without the same commensurate snowball effect, is destined to remain behind the eight ball.
Microsoft’s smartest move might therefore be to cede the larger ecosystem of PCs and settle for tight voice AI integration with its own products, including Office, Skype and Xbox.
As long as Cortana remains straightforward and helpful in such applications, there’s no reason to believe that consumers won’t use it.
Unlike fellow electronics conglomerates Sony and LG, Samsung isn’t directly implementing Google Assistant (even though it is available on its latest Galaxy S and Note handsets) or Alexa. The company is instead forging ahead with its own Bixby assistant, while also hedging its bets through its SmartThings subsidiary.
Samsung has long resisted relegation to the role of dumb hardware maker, which is why it has expended so much effort on developing its Galaxy Apps store and Samsung Pay system.
Uptake is reportedly small compared to equivalents from Apple and Google, but the company evidently feels the services are worthwhile enough to differentiate its smartphones from the rest of the Android flock.
At CES, Samsung committed to pushing Bixby into its televisions and home appliances, which means it is taking a similar approach with voice control. At the very least, the company wants to give Bixby a try before succumbing to Google and Amazon.
The future of SmartThings, the US-based home automation start-up the company acquired in 2014, is murkier. The subsidiary currently makes hub devices that allow home appliances, including those produced by Samsung, to be controlled by Google Assistant and Alexa.
But, as all those non-Samsung devices add direct interoperability with Google and Amazon’s ecosystems, SmartThings’ future relevance can only diminish.
Of the major players, Apple perhaps has the most to lose from Google’s and Amazon’s voice domination.
The iPhone maker had the early lead with Siri (still the most popular voice assistant, according to Ovum) and gained some early traction with third-party device makers via its HomeKit system.
But, with Siri’s accuracy starting to lag, and manufacturers increasingly preferring Alexa and Google Assistant, HomeKit could be positioned for a similar fate to SmartThings.
As with app stores and mobile operating systems, product makers could indeed decide that a third platform isn’t worth their resources, which would leave Apple with a shrinking ecosystem. Indeed, Siri was virtually invisible at CES. Apple's Siri-equipped HomePod speaker, unveiled by the company in June, has yet to launch commercially.
Apple is in a similar position to Samsung, except that the South Korean company has a much wider array of products – from refrigerators to TVs to washing machines – from which to gather all-important AI data.
Apple isn’t just behind in AI, its ecosystem is small and in danger of getting smaller. The problem isn’t existential yet. But it would be ironic if the rise of voice assistants – which Apple pioneered with the launch of Siri in 2011 – could end up leading to the company’s decline.
Peter Nowak is a veteran technology writer and the author of Humans 3.0: The Upgrading of the Species