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Voice Wars

Voice Wars

Alexa, write me a blog post.
“Blog post is spelled B.L.O.G.P.O.S.T.”… Dammit, Alexa! I guess I’ll do this the old way.

AI assistants aren’t at the futuristic level we’ve all dreamed of since we first encountered HAL in 2001: A Space Odyssey, Jarvis in Iron Man or even Joaquin Phoenix’s digital girlfriend Samantha in Her. But their time has definitely begun and they’re evolving at an exciting rate.


Some stats and predictions to set the scene


  • Research analysts Ovum tell us that the number of AI-capable devices is set to grow to 7.5 billion by 2021. Ovum also points out a worrying observation, that it’s only 100 million less than the current human population of Earth. So AI doesn’t outnumber us quite yet.
  • According to research firm Markets and Markets, the revenue from smart-home products is due to grow by a compound annual rate of 13% to US$137 billion by 2023.
  • 5,000 new Alexa skills (apps for voice devices) are added every 100 days.
  • ComScore even estimates that by 2020, a full 50% of all searches will be by voice.


Google’s voice recognition software now has the capacity to understand human language with 95% accuracy. That’s an increase of 20% since 2013. The final 5% will no doubt be the hardest part of the climb and when we reach 98%-99% we may be able to talk to these devices as naturally as we talk to each other.

A colleague said to me recently that his three and five year old kids find it completely normal to ask a phone to do things. With the most prevalent electronic devices in the home being voice-enabled smartphones and smart speakers, voice will certainly be the dominant tool as these kids grow up. For the rest of us adults, voice will gradually become more and more relevant and tempting as the tech industry’s adoption of voice grows.

The main players in the virtual assistant market are Google’s Assistant, Amazon’s Alexa, Microsoft’s Cortana, Apple’s Siri and Samsung’s Bixby. In the Far East, Alibaba and Baidu have also released their own virtual assistants and smart speakers.


The Smartphone Wars


Do you remember the smartphone OS wars? iOS, Android, Windows Phone (imaginative name!), Nokia’s Symbian and Blackberry’s RIM were all competing to be the #1 OS in town. In 2009, Nokia and its Symbian OS sat atop their unbreakable throne. Blackberry had a comfortable share in second place with iOS following closely in third. Android was just an energetic little puppy with just 1% of market share. Nokia had been the world’s leading phone brand for the best part of a decade. Nokia was king. They would be king forever.

Fast forward to present time and Android (77% market share) and iOS (19%) now control a 95% duopoly of the smartphone OS market.

And so, the Smartphone War is Over.


Worldwide smartphone operating system market share

The Voice War has begun


In the US smart speaker market, Amazon tops the table at 62% but has dropped 10% since January as other players have entered the market to take a bigger slice of the cake. Apple has a seemingly unimpressive 4%, but that 4% market share is for a device that has only been on shelves since January 2018, so that’s actually a very impressive result for a new product. In typical Apple fashion, they’ve listed their new HomePod speaker at a whopping $349, whereas an Amazon Echo Dot will cost you as low as $50! That’s seven Echo Dots you could have around your entire house making a truly voice-enabled home.

However, this isn’t a war of the smart speakers. It’s a war of the Virtual Assistants. Smart speakers are just the entry level voice-enabled device for now, and they are selling fast.

To rip off Winston Churchill’s famous World War II speech, this war will be fought in our browsers, our cars, homes, search engines, phones, computer operating systems, electrical appliances and every other digital medium there is.


So who will be victorious?


If one was to look at why Android holds a commanding 77% of the smartphone OS market, the key is partnership. Google’s partnerships with hundreds of device manufacturers have made Android available to the world with a phone to suit all budgets. iOS is only available on Apple devices, and Apple’s HomeKit is currently only compatible with a handful of third-party products. Samsung don’t need partnerships as much because they already manufacture thousands of electronic consumer products which are primed and waiting for Bixby voice integration. In the future, you may consider kitting out your home with the full Samsung range of products so you can control your kettle, lamps, fridge and microwave from the one hub. Being a die-hard Samsung family, you may find yourself choosing your next car based on which models are running Bixby. It will be a shame if Samsung doesn’t get Bixby into the next generation Ford Galaxy!

Let’s look at some news and updates from each of the main players:

  • Google are pushing Google Assistant in a big way. At CES this year, their marketing spend made it impossible not to be noticed
  • Amazon are working very hard getting Alexa embedded in third-party electronic products. The amount of Alexa-enabled devices at CES this year is testament to that
  • Google are investing in start-ups that use Google Assistant within their product
  • Amazon also announced the Alexa Fund, a venture capital fund to fuel voice innovation start-ups
  • Microsoft announced plans to invest $5bn into IoT tech over the next four years
  • Alibaba announced that Daimler, Audi and Volvo will be using their voice assistant Tmall Genie in their vehicles in China
  • Alibaba are set to install Genie X1 smart speakers in 100,000 hotel rooms in China
  • Xiaomi’s smart speaker launched late last year powered by Cortana
  • Samsung bought Harman International in 2017. Their joint mission is to own the in-car connectivity market


How are people using voice technologies?


People are using voice primarily in the comfort of their own homes and cars. I can’t envisage shouting “Hey Google, how many calories did I burn today?” on a bus or in the office without attracting a few sideways looks. I’ve yet to hear someone use Siri to command their Mac computer in an office environment. What people are primarily using voice for is for issuing instructional commands to their devices to control their music selection, reminders, calling, texting, following recipes in the kitchen, etc., utilizing the thousands of skills available on their device.

In summary:

  • Voice = In the home and car
  • Hands = Everywhere else


How will Voice affect search engines and websites?


Voice search is not new. It’s been available since the first modern virtual assistants Siri (2011) and Google Now (2012) were launched on smartphones. The momentum of smart speaker sales and the new competition to the market have brought the topic into focus again, and it’s time to plan for the future of voice search.

While people are primarily using their virtual assistants and smart devices to issue instructional commands, they’re also asking questions of their assistants that result in search engines attempting to give the single best answer to the query. Google’s ability to promote top answers from its vast index of webpages through Featured Snippets gives them a distinct advantage over competitors, but the competition are no doubt working to perfect the same functionality.

“Siri, what is the longest river in the world?”
“Hey Google, what is the longest river in the world?”

This query requires just one answer. If a search engine can tell me just one correct answer, then I don’t need to see any other results. And a single response is perfect for a screenless device. Annoyingly enough, in the simple query above Siri said the Nile was the longest, while Google said it was the Amazon. It turns out that I stumbled onto quite the hot topic in the world of geographic trivia.

The term Answer Engine Optimisation has been born to mark the strategic switch to dealing with content that answers more long tail conversational queries. Websites need to be able to create engaging content that answers the most popular questions users might ask about your brand or business. An FAQ section of your site is still a great way of satisfying these voice searches. Traditional SEO will continue to improve a website’s presence for specific query terms and phrases, but AEO must also be addressed to satisfy this potentially huge search volume. Luckily, the SEO/AEO approach doesn’t require two entirely different strategies. Improving your site for voice search also improves it for traditional text search. They are not competing against each other.

With such a large number of voice search queries requiring local specific information, tools like Google My Business are critical to the success of businesses. This should be the first item to be ticked off your list for voice compliance. Add your business hours, email address, website, Eircode and get working on those Google reviews. Voice users will not be trawling pages of results to stumble upon your website.

When you strip it all away, virtual assistants and smart speakers are just another user interface, and the human voice is just another input method. The tech giants are doing the heavy lifting with their assistants platforms. We just have to create the right skills (apps) and maximise our web presence so that we have visibility.

I’d bet on Google being the #1 player in this arena but like the smartphone wars of the 2000s and 2010s, it’s impossible to say who will be spearheading the voice industry in three-to-five-years. With the low cost of devices, and the relative simplicity (compared to app development) of skills development, virtual assistants will become more useful for our daily life, and continue to grow at an alarming rate.


What we can say for sure though is that the first big battle of The Voice Wars is taking place in the home.


If you want to find out which virtual assistant is right for you, click here.


Bixby, put the kettle on!