Blog: Voice, the rise of the third platform and why it matters
Last year Samsung marked their entry into the business of AI smart speakers, becoming one of the many smart speaker brands in the market. But what’s interesting about the move is that their speaker comes with Samsung’s own AI personal assistant Bixby. Though Samsung is late to the party, it is making everyone possible move to catch up to the game. In a world where we already have Google Assistant and Alexa widely available along with Cortana from Microsoft and Siri from Apple, why are we getting more voice assistants when hardly people are using it. To understand this, let’s rewind and look back at the time when smartphones were just getting started. Almost every other smartphone manufacturer at that time had their own OS, Nokia had Symbian, Microsoft had Windows, Samsung had Bada. For a majority of smartphone users, it didn’t matter at all what OS does their phone came with as long as their phone looked good, was in their budget, can play multimedia files, click good pictures, etc. Then in 2007, the iPhone was launched, which could do all of those things that any other smartphone in the market could do but even better. 2008 onwards we saw the rise of Android smartphone OS with the same set of features and capabilities. These two mobiles operating systems in the course of 10 yrs time completely took over the market from every leading player. This wasn’t because of a technology-driven push but a technology-enabled pull. They positioned their mobile operating systems as platforms on top of which every brand/business can set up their touchpoint in the form of apps and be available to the customer at their fingertips. Opening up the platform to developers to develop apps triggered a new wave of innovation across the world. Eventually, OS type and app store size became two new critical decision-making factors for the customer. This fundamentally shifted the market, resulting in the death of several popular mobile OSs such as Symbian and Blackberry and market consolidation into iOS and Android. Google and Apple saw the benefit of positioning their operating systems as a channel for businesses to deliver services without the need for a traditional website. One of most prominent innovators in the world, Amazon also applied a similar strategy to gain a share of the smartphone market with their own smartphone hardware and operating system Fire OS. But they ended up burning cash because they were late and failed to lure the developers to build apps for their platform.
Every new technology creates an ocean of possibilities and fundamentally changes how we live, work and play.
Apart from the maturity of the technology, its success to a great extent also depends on the maturity of the ecosystem it creates which includes users, developers, and hardware suppliers. When the internet started, and people increasingly began to have access to a computer, presence on web platform in the form of a website became a necessity for every business. The websites were meant to provide access to information and service to the customers. With the advent of modern smartphones, it shifted to access to information and service with convenience. The information available on websites are more static whereas in apps it’s more dynamic. However, when apps became a must, websites didn’t die because they both are used in different contexts by the user and serve different purposes.
Fast forward to today. Google and Amazon have enabled the rise of a third platform, Voice platform. Having missed on the mobile platform opportunity, Amazon took the lead and launched Alexa, a virtual assistant that is accessible over voice through their dedicated Echo series of hardware, three years after the launch of widely used virtual assistant Siri. Alexa in the form of a voice agent enabled a very intuitive and frictionless way for a customer to engage with a business. Now, Microsoft and several others have ramped up their virtual assistant technology initiatives to grab the opportunity share. All of them today have at least one type of hardware already out in the market with the virtual agent baked into it, similar to a smartphone with a pre-installed OS. As these companies are maturing these voice agent technologies at their end, they are inviting the developer community to build voice applications on top of their platform. Something very similar to what Android and iOS did to smartphones. Today these voices apps are limited to ordering food, creating a grocery list and making a reservation, but it is just getting started.
Why is this interesting for businesses?
Conversational interfaces have existed for a long time in the form chatbots, from scripted and human assisted to being completely smart. These chatbots run on hardcoded algorithms designed to fulfill user’s functional needs without understanding the intent and context. The advancement in ML, NLP, speed recognition and other technologies, has now taken the conversational interface beyond chatbots to a form that is more human, intelligent and immersive, something you can touch, hear and see. Some recent widespread interest we saw was for bots on messaging platforms such as Facebook Messenger, Slack, WeChat, etc. We had smartest of the smartest chatbots on these messaging platform, even then they failed to drive adoption. There could be multiple reasons for it such as technology, design, etc. but even one thing that is common across all of them was the friction in accessing these chatbots. User can only talk to the bots on the brand specific app or the messaging platform. In either case, to interact with a business, you need to have an app installed in the first place or have to always go to the brand specific website or channel.
Further, the capabilities of most of these bots were only limited to fetching information. Very few of them could actually perform tasks or run a transaction because they were not fundamentally designed for that. Virtual assistants can be seen as an advanced and humanized form of these smart chatbots. Virtual agents come embedded in a variety of hardware from speakers to now headphones creating an omnipresence. Building voice agents on these virtual assistant platforms bring the business one step closer to the customer because the customer no longer needs to install any app or remember your website address to talk to you. They can merely summon your voice agent on a voice device or their phone just by saying or typing ‘Ok Google, Ask ABC’ or Alexa, Talk to ABC.’
Why should you care?
The virtual assistant platform is maturing every day with its creators adding new features and capabilities. The interaction is also not limited to voice or text anymore; a user can leverage any form of information input such as voice, text or image to interact on the platform and can receive a response in a way most suitable to the user’s context. All of this in a way we are naturally designed for, through conversation. Each virtual assistant platform has its own strength and weakness, choose the one that you truly believe will transform and invest in a creative exploration of possibilities. If you think, users will only use your voice agent on Google Assistant only if they have a Google Home; then you are wrong. Google Assistant is already living and breathing in our smartphones.Similarly, one could access Alexa both on the phone as well as through Echo devices.
Now you can access Alexa through Cortana on your windows laptop too. Amazon further deepening their reach.
Virtual assistant platforms are in its early days before it unleashes its immense potential. Just like mobile operating systems, at some point in the future, there will be a consolidation happening. It’s hard to predict who will be the leader but it’s the perfect time to explore what voice platforms mean for your business.