Alexa - or: The Importance of Voice

Ten thousand employees. That is the number of people working on Amazon’s speech assistant Alexa. Add to this all the people working on Google’s, Apple’s, Samsung’s and Microsoft’s speech assistants and you get a sense for how important these companies take “the next frontier in user interfaces”. And speech is not just convenient – it also fundamentally changes the way interactions between users and products and services will work.

Take batteries. We all remember the Energizer bunny. The little, fluffy pink bunny which never ran out of steam as he was powered by the world’s leading battery brand “Energizer”. When you run out of batteries next, do you believe you will say to your voice assistant “Alexa – order a pack of Energizer MAX AAA Alkaline Battery” or will it be “Alexa – order batteries”?

If you do this on the web today, the world is pretty much in order: Amazon dutifully shows you the number one battery brand on the planet high up in its product listings. But the moment you ask Alexa – which batteries will Alexa ship you? Of course Amazon ships you Amazon Basic batteries. In the US Amazon’s online marketshare for all batteries being sold is 97%! And it is not just batteries – it is category after category which is dominated by Amazon. From skin care (91% marketshare) to home improvement (93%) or cleaning supplies (88%) and many more.

And it is not just (online) sales. Coming back to our beloved furry friend, the Energizer bunny: Where we spent significant amounts of money on marketing and brand building – from the creative team which dreamed up the bunny to the TV network which aired the ads. All of this will not matter anymore as you don’t see nor care about product brands all that much anymore when Alexa and Co. does the shopping for you.

Alexa and its ecosystem is growing at an exponential rate. In the US Amazon nearly doubled its installed base of Alexa-enabled smart devices from 25 million in the fourth quarter of 2017 to 46 million in the same quarter just one year later. Today Alexa cannot just order batteries for you, it does 99.999 other things as well. And learns 168 new skills every single day.

The important lesson is this: You don’t need to care about batteries to understand that voice will shift the decision from the mouse click of a consumer to the data-fed intelligence of the voice assistant. And this will be an as fundamental shift as there can be. We will do more and more things on and with our smart speakers. And they soon will be everywhere: In our home, our phones (and thus always with us), our car, our televisions. Voice, as a medium is much more versatile than computer or mobile phone screens – and it is much easier to integrate into many more devices and interactions.

And yet, you might look at voice as a curious oddity. As much as they are science fiction which has become real (remember the communicator from StarTrek?), they still have many flaws to overcome. They struggle with dialects, uncommon terms or complex commands. Given the huge investments being made into their further development combined with the continued exponential growth of the underlying technology platforms such as compute power and artificial intelligence as well as big data, it will only be a question of time until these systems become an inevitable part of our daily lives.

For voice interfaces to work, they need to reduce choice (nobody wants Alexa rattling down a list of all the batteries it has on offer), and with reduced choice these systems will need (and want) to make choices for us. Now the million dollar question becomes: Who controls what anymore?