If you followed the hype, 2016 was supposed to be the year of VR. Sony, Samsung, Google, HTC, and Facebook’s Oculus all launched VR devices last year. But compared to the hype and initial projections, all of them flopped.
Virtual reality, and later Augmented Reality (AR), were supposed to be the next big development platform to supplant Android and iOS. Yet even today, it looks like widespread consumer adoption of these technologies is still a few years away, at best. The devices will see some use in enterprises, where the value is real, but they’re still too bulky and far too expensive for most consumers.
Yet while Facebook and others were investing heavily in VR, Amazon was quietly building the next big platform: voice.
In hindsight, last year was the year of Alexa, the AI voice assistant on Amazon’s Echo device. Amazon made a big push last year to turn Alex into a development platform by allowing developers to create third-party “skills” for Alexa. (Skills are the Alexa equivalent of an app.) Alexa now has more than 7000 skills, which is a 700% increase from early last year.
Amazon also made some big moves to move Alexa beyond just one device in the Home. It recently announced that Alexa will be available for the first time on third-party devices, starting with Huawei’s Mate 9 Android phone. And it also announced a partnership with Ford to add Alexa into the car.
While smartphones will continue to be ruled by touchscreen interactions, the car is an environment where voice could be the key interaction model, especially as autonomous cars make there way onto the market within the next five years.
Amazon isn’t the only big platform company that thinks so.
Unsurprisingly, Google is trying to get into the game as well. In December, Google announced that it was opening up its Google Home Assistant device to developers, who will be allowed to program what it’s calling “Actions’ (read: skills).
And just this week, Google CEO Sundar Pichai talked about voice on Google’s Q4 earnings call. Pichai said that Google expects voice to “work from many different contexts. We are thinking about it across phones, homes, TVs, cars and trying to drive the ecosystem that way, and we want it to be there for users when they need it.”
In other words, Google sees voice AI as the key development platform for the next few years. But unlike in mobile, in this area Google is playing catch up.
Pinchai said that voice AI is still “very early days,” and he’s right. The battle for the connected home hasn’t even really taken off yet, and autonomous vehicles – where voice will shine compared to today’s vehicles, where the need of a driver limits interaction potential – are still several years away.
However, Amazon already has a healthy lead on the competition, and as we saw with mobile phones, there’s likely to only be one or two big winners in the development platform for voice AI. The underlying technology will make a difference, especially in early stages, but the ultimate determinant of success will be which platform can attract a large network of software developers.
Amazon already has a healthy lead, but Google is clearly very focused on this area. Apple and Microsoft are too, with Siri and Cortana, respectively.
The platform that can get the most developers making “actions” or “skills” will likely have an insurmountable advantage within a few years. This time, there won’t be an app for that, but there will probably be a skill for it.