2016 saw personal assistant technology mushroom. The big developments were natural language capability and device innovation. Although market shares are closely guarded company secrets, the dominant players are finishing the year neck and neck in capacity.
Natural Language Grows
Facebook introduced chatbot functionality to Messenger in April 2016, opening it to developers. In doing so, Facebook exposed a wide audience to chatbots. While Google and Amazon Alexa have employed natural language processing to aid users for years, they had not offered conversational support: asking a question of those assistants did not ‘prime’ them for subsequent similar questions. Chatbots brought conversational interaction to the consumer writ large.
Google deployed similar conversational interaction with Google Assistant, announced in May 2016. Whether this release was in direct response to Facebook’s bots (one month prior) is mere speculation. Alexa got very limited conversational functionality in late December 2016, oddly, after the holiday shopping season.
Device Offerings Expand
The natural, conversational interaction with assistants is impressive, but its penetration is based in device availability.
At the start of 2016 consumers had one choice in personal assistant devices: Amazon Echo. True, there was Google Now and Siri (and Cortana in a very distant fourth place), on phones, but I’m speaking in terms of true assistants capable of performing tasks beyond simply performing a search. Amazon made public its Dot and Tap devices in March 2016, the same time that Facebook put chatbots into Messenger. This development had the effect of lowering the price of access to Alexa, thereby facilitating Amazon securing more users.
The devices supporting true smart assistants reached a tipping point when Google Assistant went live. Google Assistant is something of the smarter child of Google Now, and as such, Google seems to want it everywhere. To that end, Google made it native in its Pixel smartphone, launched in October 2016. Taking a page out of Microsoft’s book (i.e.: that Cortana is available for download by many smartphone users), Google made Assistant available through the Play Store. However, rather than downloading Assistant as a standalone app, Google packaged it in the (not too popular) messaging app Allo, released in September 2016. We can infer two things from this integration. First, Google reasoned that Assistant would be an irresistible lure to pull users to the new messenger. Second, and more important, it tells us that Google sees, and wants us to see, Assistant as a true virtual being to be communicated with just as like a person. This second implication is evidenced by the fact that it can be summoned in text conversation with others. Google’s jab to Amazon’s cross completely eliminates the cost burden of acquiring Assistant; it is reasonable to assume that those interested in Alexa or Assistant already own capable smartphones, either Android or iPhone. Amazon responded by rolling out Alexa to its other tablet devices.
Google’s next move in the sparring match was to roll out the smart speaker Google Home. Initially limited in functionality, although boasting the conversational abilities of Google Assistant, opening it to developers in December 2016 led to a title wave of new services.
Having not tested either Amazon’s Alexa or Google’s Assistant, I cannot speak to superiority. I recently asked Google Now “show me pictures of blue helmets” and to my delight I was shown pictures of UN troops; I hope that such perception of nuance will carry over to Assistant. In a December 30, 2016 test by Jay McGregor published in Forbes, Google Home beat out Amazon Echo, answering 50% of questions correctly vs. 35% for Alexa.
Siri may have run its course. Where we will forever be indebted to her for kick starting the development of virtual assistants, it seems to have failed to keep up with Amazon and Google. Amazon and Google have tremendous advantages over Apple in this regard. Apple is a design firm principally, while Amazon and Google are information companies. (Note that Amazon is often seen as a retailer, and it does sell directly to consumers, but it is able to make those sales only to the extent that it can understand the consumers’ queries and then present them with the products that will best satisfy the demand that drove the product search.) Similarly, Microsoft is primarily a software company, and we will no doubt see Cortana (maybe it will get a boost from being integrated into new versions of Windows) languish. It is too soon for speculation on how the competition between Google Assistant and Alexa will play out, or whether they will continue to compete toe-to-toe at all, or move to occupy different spaces. That said, we can be reasonably sure that the technology will become increasingly ubiquitous.
In the interest of full disclosure, I just ordered a Google Home device.
© Peter Roehrich, 2016.