JOSE, Calif. — It’s no wonder titans of tech are
locked in an epic battle of the bots, racing furiously
to produce the best virtual assistant.
respective help-bots — Apple’s Siri, Google’s
Assistant, Amazon’s Alexa and Microsoft’s Cortana
— promise consumers one of the most valuable
commodities in the world: free time.
to the sudden acceleration of artificial intelligence
and advancements in speech recognition and big-data
storage, the technology behind virtual assistants is
rapidly spreading from phones to cars and homes, and the
truly useful helper is approaching fast. The four giants
are fighting for the biggest share of a market expected
to grow to $12 billion by 2024.
a tremendous amount of promise for these agents to help
and assist with many different tasks that we face every
day," said Ross Rubin, principal analyst at Reticle
Research. "The more the agent can help you with,
the more value it holds."
ultimate goal is our own personal genie in a bottle that
awakens with a word or touch to liberate us from all our
mundane tasks, organize our days and nights, and free us
from the stress of lives that have become so terribly
busy. But that’s not going to happen quite yet.
the aid these virtual assistants provide remains
limited. Most users of Google Home and Amazon Echo
devices — which host Assistant and Alexa, respectively
— stream music, play audio books, and control
smart-home devices, according to surveys by San
Francisco analytics firm VoiceLabs.
the virtual agent’s foundation in AI means the more it
learns about a user’s preferences and behaviors, the
better job it can do. So while experts predict a handful
of firms will dominate in this field — most agree
Apple, Google and Amazon will be major players, with
Microsoft in a lesser role — they’re split on
whether consumers will be served best by one bot, or
want one assistant, they don’t want two," said
Jan Dawson, chief analyst at Jackdaw Research in San
Jose. "You want one assistant, to be very readily
available wherever you are."
the various assistants will likely end up somewhat
specialized in their expertise, with Google’s
Assistant, for example, excelling in providing knowledge
and managing schedules, and Microsoft’s Cortana
leading on gaming, said VoiceLabs CEO Adam Marchick. In
a few years, many people will use two or three different
assistants, Marchick predicted.
industry stands at a critical moment, because the first
highly effective help-bot to get a foothold in a
consumer’s home, phone or car will likely stay,
creating a barrier to competitors, Marchick said.
order for a virtual helpmate to run your life, it needs
to engage with the providers of all the services you
rely on, from your calendar app to your Uber ride. Those
providers must either partner with the company operating
the assistant, or design their app to integrate with the
assistant. So Spotify will stream music upon request via
Alexa, and Honeywell’s smart-home thermostat, via
Assistant, will bump up the temperature 15 minutes
before Grandma’s expected arrival.
providers, "if there is a competitive advantage to
be gained, then absolutely they will do it," said
Brett Sappington, senior director of research at market
research firm Parks Associates.
all the major players, virtual assistants provide
important data that fuels the AI that powers and
improves them, making both the assistants and the
products they live in ever more marketable. For Amazon,
Alexa is an enthusiastic purchasing agent for the
e-commerce that drives the firm. For Google, Assistant
is a turbocharged vacuum for the data the company
collects to sell ads targeted directly at users.
the projected expansion of virtual assistants is the
"voice first" approach to personal technology,
said Brian Roemmele, a Los Angeles tech entrepreneur and
expert in voice computing. Voice operation keeps hands
free and it’s faster, he noted, because speaking
conveys information more quickly than typing.
far, both Google and Amazon have focused largely on
home-based assistants. Google’s new Pixel phones host
Assistant, but it has an uphill battle because Apple has
far more phones equipped with Siri on the market, said
Tim Bajarin, an analyst with San Jose market research
firm Creative Strategies.
popularity of Amazon’s Echo and Alexa notwithstanding
— the company has sold more than 8 million Echo
devices since rolling them out in late 2014, according
to Consumer Intelligence Research Partners — most
people want their virtual assistant on their phones,
you’re driving, that’s critical, or if your hands
are busy," Bajarin said. "The phone will
continue to dominate as the vehicle for delivering the
these robo-helpers into cars’ onboard systems has
become a priority for major firms, including Microsoft,
which seeks to extend the reach of its PC-based Cortana
through the "connected-vehicle" platform it
announced this year.
January, Nissan announced it would integrate Microsoft’s
platform into its cars. Siri already can be used in a
car via a phone or Apple’s CarPlay system, or in cars
sold with Siri integration built in. Hyundai is bringing
Alexa and Google’s Assistant into some of its cars so,
for example, an owner could start their car from their
building the supreme help-bot is clearly a priority for
many major tech firms, experts say the software today
lacks the knowledge base to take the next big leap: to
enable virtual assistants that can predict our needs to
serve us better.
of it is just raw amounts of data and understanding
about how the world works and what humans expect,"
Reticle’s Rubin said.
companies rise to dominance depends both on the
capability of their bots and the draw of the gadgets
that house them.
story has not been written on what success is going to
be in this space," Sappington said.