Five Trends for Voice Assistants in 2018

It’s going to be an interesting year…

Since we’ve reached the end of one year, and the beginning of another, it seems like a good time to take a checkpoint and think about what is coming next in the Voice Assistant world. These are my predictions, you may agree or you may not— either way I’d love to discuss, let me know in the comments.

1. Winners Emerge

2018 is the year that we will see clear winners emerge — it’s possible that we may even see a single winner push into enough spaces to essentially take out everyone else — leaving everyone else to settle for a very small slice of the pie, partner with them…or simply disappear. So who are the players?

Amazon is storming ahead in the ‘home smart speaker’ market with almost a 70% share — although Alexa is much more than just something that is in the Echo devices. They have wide range of developer integration points, and are rolling out more to allow others to embed Alexa into almost any device. They have a smart business model, with cheap devices to start you off, and an e-commerce platform that constantly advertises them. They have created a very ‘social’ device — one that encourages you to get one for your family and friends too (and hey, they are on sale right before Christmas!). They are getting smarter at creating easier ways to integrate with smart home devices too, targeting those less ‘tech savvy’ and further expanding market share.

Google is staying strong, their technology is definitely a match, if not even better in some regards. They are adding integrations and tools for developers just as fast. While Amazon rules the ‘home smart speaker’ market, Google owns the ‘smartphone voice assistant’ market with almost a 50% share — something Amazon has almost no presence in. Google has both the technology and data to create a very powerful digital assistant, but the use of Voice Assistants on smartphones hasn’t been as successful as the home devices. Somehow we are still uncomfortable with communicating one-on-one with Voice Assistants — but the home device, with its less ‘personal’ presence has bridged a gap that the smartphone couldn’t. If Google can turn the tide on this they still have a chance of catching up, but the window is closing.

Apple has somehow completely misstepped on this. They came early to the game with Siri, but maybe too early and with technology that disappointed. Although they have made strides to correct in some of the places they are weak, they are very far behind now. They have simply either gotten their timing and technology wrong, or they are playing a very long game.

Microsoft has already spotted the writing on the wall, and although Cortana is in most Windows devices (which still have a large share of the personal computer space), it really hasn’t taken off. They have been smart however, and already formed a partnership with Amazon so that Cortana and Alexa can communicate. This is especially significant with the announcement of Alexa for Business, a place where Windows machines abound. Being able to talk to Alexa from your computer may be enough to get users to try it out, and maybe get comfortable enough with it to even start to use Cortana itself. It will never dominate, but it has taken steps to survive.

In the US and UK, it’s unlikely anyone else will emerge in the next year to take that winning spot. For smaller startups wanting to get into this space integrating with the right system will be key — the winning Voice Assistant will get more integrations, and more integrations will push it ever further ahead. If you aren’t a big enough player, partnering will be the only option.

2. Explosion of the Smart Home Market

With the smart home speaker being a major part of the Voice Assistant ecosystem, it makes sense that smart home devices would be a good target for integrations with it. The win here is that it makes sense from the other side too. Smart home devices should ideally be ‘zero touch’ — they should largely know what you want, observe your routine and, for instance, set the heat accordingly, or know when you leave the house and turn off the lights (or maybe randomly turn them on and off to create the illusion someone is at home). However, users still want some control over their devices and a way to manually intervene. Having to bring up a dedicated smartphone app, opening it and clicking through, is a big move away from the zero touch and disappearing interfaces that smart homes should provide. However, just speaking the commands is a much more frictionless experience, and so the ideal compromise when you need to move just a little past zero touch — and you still keep your invisible interface.

As more Voice Assistants arrive in people’s homes (a lot more this Christmas I imagine), many are already coming with smart devices bundled, and smart devices are getting cheaper and more accessible to the non tech-savvy.

Children will grow up used to smart homes. Adults will buy devices for their parents — both because they are getting cheaper, and trying to work out what to buy your parent is hard, but also because they should make life easier for both their parents and them. Smart devices also allow remote monitoring — is the grandparent’s house warm enough? Are they remembering to turn the lights off at bedtime? What about the oven? If the grandparents struggle to work the devices, most can be adjusted or turned on or off remotely.

Smart home devices have been around for a long time, but as a niche item. They are about to become extremely mainstream.

3. Battle for Brand Surfacing

As users move towards voice-only interfaces, any visual branding is stripped away. Given the already challenging problems of discovery on all chatbots, brands are going to have to work extra hard to get their names and products to bubble up to the top of the heap, and to be memorable when they get there. We’re going to see new job roles emerging for company and product branding specifically on Voice Assistant platforms. Some brands already have very iconic audio branding, many do not. If you’re a radio marketer or a jingle writer looking for a new gig, your time may have come.

A more concerning question is whether a voice interface, with its need to slim down information to only the most pertinent, means the companies that own the assistant now totally control the users’ options. When a user says “Alexa, I need car insurance”, who gets to feature in the options offered? How will that be decided, and will it mean the death of smaller companies?

Companies need to ask these questions now, and work to mitigate impact to their brand. Waiting isn’t an option if you want to remain relevant.

4. Renewed Focus on the Enterprise

Almost all of the big players (Google, Apple, Microsoft) have ‘office productivity’ applications that they have been working to get more and more businesses to adopt (Microsoft and their Office Suite already has a big advantage here, but things like Google Docs and Keynote are sneaking in). All of these already offer integrations with their Voice Assistants.

Amazon has not previously had a big cut of enterprise office tools, but Alexa for Business changes all that. With Microsoft’s partnership, as well as many other key integrations, they could easily storm past the other players.

This will mean everyone will have to improve their game, something that will benefit office workers— who have actually not had the same advancements in this area of technology in their work life as they have in their personal life.

But even more than this, we’re going to see a blending of work voice assistants and home voice assistants — you’ll be able to call up your work calendar from home, or check your personal one in the office. This will further incentivise people to choose the same Voice Assistant (or a partner one) as the one that your work has. Winning the enterprise will secure a good foothold in getting into the home too.

5. AI Pushes Capabilities Ever Faster

Artificial Intelligence services have been seeing exponential growth, and their capabilities have been becoming ever more sophisticated. With democratised AI services, and the cloud allowing anyone to run a level of computing power unimaginable to any ‘normal’ person just a few years ago, we are seeing this technology accessible to all and being used widely. And the more people that actually use the services, the more data that flows through them, and the faster they improve. The more they improve, the more people will use them, and so on…

In 2018 expect to see things that we would have thought very unlikely a year ago, and simply wouldn’t have thought to imagine five years ago. We are on the crest of a wave, and things are going to get very exciting very quickly.

All of this will push the capabilities of Voice Assistants ever faster — we should expect not only to see them get increasingly smarter, but also more ‘human’. Simulated voices will sound less robotic, context and sentiment will adjust the interactions, and we will start to rely on them more and more.

Conversational Interfaces are a huge shift in human-computer interaction — and I think we are only starting to understand the scope and depth of that. When I write my 2019 predictions I expect that Voice Interfaces will be as normalised as Web Interfaces. 2018 is going to be fun.

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