The cover of the November print edition of The Atlantic says it all: “Teacher, Therapist, Parent, Spy: What Alexa Is Doing to Us.” The headline jumps out at me for two reasons:
- The conversation about voice has rapidly progressed from “Who is using voice?” to “Voice is shaping our everyday lives.” Voice is no longer an issue exclusively for the business and technology world. Mainstream media have grasped its potential impact on all facets of society.
- Amazon’s Alexa voice assistant is synonymous with voice just like Google is synonymous with search.
Alexa is far from the only game in town. In fact, Amazon didn’t pioneer voice with Alexa – Apple did with Siri. Alexa isn’t even necessarily the most functional: a recent assessment from Business News Daily ranked Google Assistant and Siri ahead of Alexa, and Google Assistant comes on top in a test by Search Engine Journal. And a recent analysis from Forbes says that Microsoft’s Cortana “is much, much smarter than most have assumed.”
But you don’t see The Atlantic pondering “What Cortana is doing to us.” And it’s easy to see why:
- Amazon is successfully building a voice-based ecosystem with Alexa
- Microsoft is building voice-based products
There is a big difference between the two.
The Amazon ecosystem encompasses the home, the workplace, and everywhere in between. Amazon has rolled out products and tools to make it easier to embed Alexa into our daily lives, such as developer tools that enable the creation of Alexa skills. To be sure, Alexa’s initial success came from the rapid sale of Amazon Echo home speakers, and by and large it does today, too. But since Amazon launched the Echo, Amazon has developed more products that make it possible for people to use Alexa on their mobile phones, in their cars, and in the workplace to do everything from get directions to listen to music.
And Amazon has something else: retail muscle. Amazon can outflank Microsoft anytime it wants by:
- Offering the Echo at different price points
- Lowering the price to adjust to seasonal demand
- Capitalizing on the Whole Foods network for offline sales and Amazon itself as the all-powerful online retail hub
Simply put, Alexa is affordable and pervasive.
Now look at Microsoft: Cortana doesn’t even merit a mention in eMarketer’s latest report on devices using voice assistants. At CES 2018, “it was all about Alexa vs. Google Assistant,” according to The Verge. “If you were hoping to see more Cortana-powered devices, they were nowhere to be found.” The Wall Street Journal recent offered an explanation for why the conversation about voice usually excludes Cortana: Microsoft has contained its own technology. As The Wall Street Journal noted,
When [Cortana] . . . was introduced four years ago, it was available only through the Windows operating system, a strategy that hobbled Cortana as voice computing took off in a new era of smart speakers.
According to The Wall Street Journal, Microsoft is now trying to change that approach. Microsoft is trying to get more customers to use Cortana when they are untethered from the PC. Meanwhile, Microsoft, citing third-party data, says that Cortana has the biggest marketshare for businesses that use AI-powered chatbots. But Amazon launched its own Alexa for Business offering only a year ago – and Amazon knows how to move quickly. And how well Microsoft can make Cortana a more popular technology among consumers is a huge question mark (at best). As Windows Central recently noted, “Amazon is crushing Microsoft’s ambitious IoT goal of providing both a platform and front-end for ambient computing with its aggressive Alexa-driven strategy.”
It’s possible that Microsoft recently aligning Cortana with its product teams will make the company more nimble. Meanwhile you can count on these three things happening:
- Advances with Google Assistant – most famously demonstrated at Google’s I/O 2018 event Google Assistant made a stunningly lifelike phone call — will force Amazon to make Alexa better
- Google will continue to challenge Amazon’s dominance
- Microsoft will settle on a smaller, but still valuable, role for Cortana – probably on the enterprise side.
Moonshot works with enterprises to develop lovable products that use voice-based technology. We employ a methodology known as FUEL to rapidly build prototypes and then scale them into full-blown products. In our white paper Creating a Voice-Based Product with a Design Sprint we give you a high-level insight into how we’d develop a lovable product with voice. Check it out, and contact us if you need help getting started embracing voice.