Why the Most Successful Digital Assistants Will Be Platform Disruptors

Is the world big enough for Google Home, Alexa, Siri and Cortana?

Laptop manufacturers Acer, Asus, HP and Lenovo will all incorporate Alexa into Windows PCs. Getty Images

The Consumer Electronics Show has introduced a slew of new voice-powered devices, with Google and Amazon leading the way. The spread of Alexa and Google Assistant puts Microsoft’s Cortana in a particularly uncomfortable position, one where even the Windows PC isn’t safe from other companies’ encroachment.

The lesson is clear: The most successful digital assistants will be platforms, in two senses. They’ll be available on a wide range of machines, from different manufacturers and in different form factors, as a voice layer on top of different operating systems. And they’ll also be open for development from as many partners as possible, who want to build voice-specific applications or tie existing applications and services into the platform.

Cutthroat competition between the providers, with companies cutting off services to other platforms, will offer some short-term advantages but ultimately confuse customers and limit the sector’s growth. A handful of giants are all taking lessons from the PC era of the 1990s; let’s hope they’re the right ones.

The company whose voice platform has the most momentum coming through CES is Google. Google Assistant, which is already on Google Home devices and Android smartphones and TV boxes, is branching out to smart speakers. Google is also introducing a line of smart displays—essentially, voice-activated speakers with screens on them—from JBL, Lenovo, LG and Sony.

These devices make Google a direct competitor with Amazon on Alexa’s most popular devices. They also offer a wider variety of hardware—multiple screen sizes, differing privacy features, etc.—and of course, full access to YouTube and other Google services, which Google removed from Amazon’s devices last fall.

Alexa is everywhere

Amazon had its own announcements for Alexa at CES: laptop manufacturers Acer, Asus, HP and Lenovo will all incorporate Amazon’s voice assistant into Windows PCs. The manufacturers are adding far-field microphones, allowing users to voice-operate their computers from across the room. Although you could use these microphones to activate Microsoft’s Cortana assistant at a distance too, on these machines, Alexa will be the star of the show.

With Panasonic also working to bring Alexa to cars, Amazon’s assistant is well-placed across the spectrum. Amazon may not manufacture a huge variety or number of devices, or control the underlying operating system, like Apple does, but it’s proven that Alexa is compelling and interconnected enough to be in demand everywhere.

In fact, Microsoft, which historically has been the company most aggressive in pursuing device and service partnerships, is getting out-Microsofted by Google and Amazon. In August, Amazon and Microsoft had announced that the two companies would work to integrate Alexa and Cortana by the end of 2017, but both companies missed the deadline. Amazon’s Alexa app on Windows PCs is being pursued separately from this initial agreement—so there’ll be no “Alexa, open Cortana” or vice versa on these machines.

Also, as PC World’s Mark Hachman writes, Cortana has never supported the range of smart home devices that Alexa has. Amazon, Google and Apple have all worked to integrate their digital assistants with smart home platforms, and that investment’s paid off.

Nobody wants a voice-based assistant that can’t talk to any other device. This is why you don’t see any company at CES not named Samsung touting that it’s proudly putting Bixby on new devices, or any other manufacturers announcing their own solo voice assistant platforms. Cortana’s not at the Samsung Bixby level, but it’s facing similar problems getting traction. If Facebook enters this space as well—and there are reports that it will, later this year—it will face similar challenges without clear and compelling use cases for their devices.

Meanwhile, chipmaker Qualcomm is happily supporting the entire smart speaker and voice assistant sector, offering a smart speaker development kit for both Linux and Android, a new smart audio platform for Cortana, and notably, a Home Hub platform for Google Assistant and Android Things, with Lenovo’s Echo Show-like Smart Display as the first entrant. The goal is to offer not just voice, but AI—learning algorithms that can automate key tasks—into interconnected devices throughout the house.

The fight for the platform

But—and here’s the tricky part—it’s a lot harder for those devices to connect if they’re not all on the same platform. Alexa, Siri and Google Assistant might all be able to talk to your light bulb, but they, along with Cortana, have a difficult time talking to each other. This means users either have to pledge allegiance to a single platform across devices, or use a hodgepodge: perhaps Alexa for music, Siri for TV and movies, Google Assistant for video calls and so forth.

It’s a real platform fight again. Even though Siri and Alexa have a head start, Google has momentum and some built-in advantages. Google has huge amounts of data and some of the most popular interfaces for it, particularly those that are most relevant for smart displays. Video, maps, messaging, voice and video chat, local data and especially search are all Google strengths. It also has a huge developer platform with Android and hundreds of millions of connected devices.

Google also has the biggest ad network in the world, allowing them and their developers to directly monetize those services. Amazon can tie into retail, and Apple can use voice as a loss leader to sell their beautiful machines, but there’s almost no trace of a direct payment model for services via voice assistants now. If the widgets will pay their own freight, they’ll do it with advertising.

There are good reasons marketers are rushing to get on these platforms and good reasons they’re confused about which will ultimately prove most valuable.

Digital assistant platforms now are a little like the PC and browser battles of 20 years ago. Microsoft and Intel may have controlled the general computing ecosystem, but it was clear then the web could be a platform of its own, running on inexpensive machines with cheap chips, open-source operating systems, Java to do the heavy lifting and advertising to pay for all of it.

Now, digital assistants are the new web browsers. The companies that control the platforms are anxious to preserve their own positions, and have mapped out a range of strategies to do it. Customers are confused when things don’t work together, at why they have to buy this light bulb because they have that smartphone. Common standards and true interoperability between platforms would go a long way to making the situation better. But first, there will probably be a shakeout, with the strongest, most interconnected, best revenue-supported platforms surviving and the rest relegated to history.