Clash of the Voice Assistants

Google's strength is underrated

It’s easy to find plenty of articles like this one that tout Amazon’s lead in the smart-speaker category. They are all fundamentally missing the point. Smart speakers are simply the newest front in the battle of the voice assistants. In other words, Google Assistant is what’s important; the Google Home is only relevant insofar as it gets more people using Assistant. Ditto for Alexa and the Echo. Amazon’s continued discounting of the hardware, alongside its investments in the Alexa Skills Kit and Alexa Fund, are strong evidence that this is how the products are viewed internally.

Seen through this lense, Google has an enormous advantage over Amazon, and its name is Android. Currently over half of all Android phones are capable of running Google Home. That’s more than 400M devices running Google Assistant, vs. around 25M with Alexa. The primary value of a smart speaker over a phone is that you don’t have to reach into pocket to pull it out. The crash of the Fire Phone is still echoing in the distance; a smart speaker without a mobile offering is fundamentally crippled. The Google Assistant follows me throughout my day in a way that Alexa simply can’t.

That said, Google has made a few product choices that are allowing Amazon to gain ground more quickly than should be possible. The choice not to give Assistant a human name looms large among these. Though it seems like a trivial thing, this contributes to both poor user experience and comparatively little earned media exposure for the product.

Branding for voice assistants is particularly important: not only do companies train their users to interact in a particular way, users must learn this behavior without any of the visual cues present in other media. What is true for all user interfaces is doubly true for voice interfaces: the experience must be so seamless as to feel obvious. Any burr in this process will inevitably hurt conversion

Giving voice assistants human names is an obvious way to smooth the user experience. Human beings are wired to talk to other people, and we constantly personify our technology. Names like Alexa and Siri facilitate this anthropomorphization and reduce cognitive dissonance. This is also reflected in the way media outlets cover these technologies. Naming these products allow journalists to frame them as human stories rather than tech or business pieces.

Not naming Assistant is a natural outcome that likely stems from its origins in the Voice Search product. Within this limited domain, it seems natural to ask Google for answers. However, the emergence of “google” as a word in common usage has handicapped Assistant by rendering it unsuitable as a wake-word. Consequently, all queries addressed to Assistant must be prefaced with “hey” or “OK.” Though the addition of a single word seems minor, it feels aggressive and unnatural as a user.

Ultimately Google is going to win the voice assistant battle. Its advantages are simply too great to overcome. The day of victory will come when Google figures out how to fully leverage the vast Android app ecosystem on Assistant. We already see that Assistant is able to trigger functionality within certain mobile apps. Once this interoperability is made seamless and available to developers, it will be game over for Alexa. If a developer is choosing between building an Alexa skill from the ground up or implementing a new intent standard in their existing Android app, that’s no contest at all. Recent media buzz suggests that we may see more on this at Google IO 2018 next week.

Cross device functionality will prove to be the decisive factor. When Assistant, triggered via a Google Home, is able to launch an app on your phone, the end will be nigh. Not only will this bring to bear the might of the entire Google Play Store, it will give Google a way to monetize voice search on a CPC basis by associating a voice search result with a mobile page load.

Written on April 30, 2018