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Have Amazon Already Won The “Voice First”​ Race?

Right now, certainly in the UK & USA, the Smart Speaker roost is being dominated by the Amazon Alexa.

Estimates for the market share currently held by Amazon’s Voice Assistant hover around the 70%-75% market. To some performing voice, searches are becoming known as “Asking Alexa” no matter what voice assistant you are addressing. In the same way, Google became synonymous with search engine results and Hoover became the catch-all term for Vacuum cleaners, Amazon Alexa is becoming intrinsically linked with ‘Voice’.

Apple (Siri), Samsung (Bixby) and Google (Home) of course all have their versions of the Alexa (along with others) but with such a massive lead over their competitors, is it possible that Amazon will ever have a true competitor?

Amazon has taken a clear approach to ensure that their device is at the front of peoples minds when it comes to Virtual Assistants. Flashy advertising campaigns and a “stack them high, sell them cheap” policy has seen most users turn to the Amazon brand first when taking their first step into the world of Voice First and, understandably brands have followed suit.

Alexa Skills have seemingly taken priority for many companies over, for example, building a Google Action in a similar way to in the past developers of Apps would focus on iOS over Android. It makes perfect sense. They’re easier to build, provide access to a wider market and the low tech “Flash Briefing” function allows brands to dip a toe in the voice-first pool without a big investment of time or a massive amount of technical knowledge.

You also have to consider the way that the Amazon “Ecosystem” is dominating the home. Lights, Clocks, Microwaves, Fridges and even Cars can now be found with Alexa built-in. Partly this is to help customers experience a seamless, automated life but it is also, it’s an attempt to dominate this space and make it more difficult for customers to move away from their prefered Virtual Assistant.

There is a keen rivalry between the two dominant brands. Google has been banned from selling its devices on Amazon’s market place and, in retaliation, Google has blocked YouTube from Amazon’s devices (which you think would be a negative for consumers on both sides).

In this particular tech war, it is beginning to look like un unassailable market-leading position for the Alexa brand. Although I do wonder if it matters and how this brand loyalty will pan out?

We are at the very beginning of the Voice First journey and currently forecasters can only guess at what future the medium has. However, it is widely accepted that Voice Assistants of the future won’t be contained within small speakers but will live around us in any IoT connected device. This in itself changes the game.

Suddenly the device that delivers the content becomes much less important than it is right now. Even if Amazon still dominate the hardware in the home the user experience and content available via each of the voice assistants will be far more important now. Consider now how an internet user access web content. The browser they use is much less important than the content itself and even the hardware is secondary. Smart Speakers (or rather more Voice Assistants will follow this same progression).

There will still be a certain amount of brand loyalty. Users will become familiar with a certain voice and a certain way of communication but, above all, creating frictionless communication and delivering high-quality content will be key. Just like other mediums; Podcast vs Radio or TV vs Streaming; The content is primary. The delivery method is secondary.

This particular battle has already begun.

Amazon is attempting to tie users into their “Prime Music” ecosystem and Smart Homes whilst Google, as mentioned, will take advantage of their YouTube exclusivity (particularly as we see more screen-based devices enter the market). The victor here will be who invests in exclusive content first. In a similar way that we’ve seen with Amazon and Netflix, we could see competition for the biggest names, providers and brands with key players holding exclusive licences for the audience’s favourite content.

For me, the real opportunity, however, is user experience. Right now, Voice still often feels clunky and frustrating. It’s improving on virtually a daily basis but it is still a work in progress. The OS that can offer the most natural, frictionless and intuitive interaction model will have a massive advantage in this space.

Alexa may have the advantage in hardware right now but in terms of UX it’s a more even race. Amazon has encouraged developers to explore the space and create interesting content and voice apps giving them the edge here whilst Google have used their experience in web search and user behaviour to continuously improve their voice experience.

To butcher a famous analogy; Voice is a marathon, not a sprint and although Alexa may be leading the pack at the end of mile one there is a long way to go, and a load of twists and turns before anyone can pick up the gold medal of market dominance.

I believe that children are the future… of voice.

Even as a self-confessed Voice First evangelist I must admit to having occasional moments of doubt.

Just like everyone else, I have directed words to my Amazon Alexa in frustration that she really she shouldn’t have to hear. Angered by the devices inability to follow my commands. I’ve also felt that awkward self-consciousness when talking to my personal assistant… even when alone in a room.

There is no doubt that these are stumbling blocks that Voice must skip over in order to fulfil what many believe to be its full potential… but maybe the journey to overcome those issues is already well underway.

This weekend I witnessed a friends child performing a search on their parent’s phone and it made me realise that the future of voice will be decided by the generation that will benefit most from its growth.

The child in question was 7 years old who wanted to find out more information on Ladybirds (and why not). They were handed the phone to search for what they wanted to know but instead of clicking Google, as I would have done, they activated Siri to conduct their search. The returned results were the same as I would have received; a hot list of articles using Googles SEO search functions (another current pitfall of the medium) but the method of getting there was totally different. For once, “Voice First” ACTUALLY became; voice, first.

It was a moment of revelation for me. Voice will be the default way to find information for a future generation because it will be what they’ve been conditioned to use.

Yes, you could argue that the younger users of the IOF are turning to voice out of ease. The ability to use a keyboard and spell a word is a far more complex interaction than simply “asking” for something but, by being comfortable and interacting with Alexa, Hey Google, Siri or whatever voice interface they choose, the next generation of tech users are being trained to turn to voice as default. Just as the generation before were trained to use Facebook or the generation before that were trained to use email.

I’ve been witnessing this activity at home for months now. My 6-year-old son is so accustomed to using voice to find the content than he wants that he will frequently bark “Alexa, play Shotgun” at the non-voice enable car radio when he wants to hear his favourite song. For him, its already become an assumption that technology is “Voice-Enabled”.

I’m not breaking any new ground here. Amazon themselves have been early to engage with the younger users would provide them with a future client-based. From early on they have encouraged their hobbyist developers to work on Skills and Games that engage with this audience. Partly to turn Alexa into a “hub” for the family and partly to help integrate this new technology into day to day life from an early age. It’s a smart tactic.

Recently, I have been working on a Voice Skill project where, during our user testing of Skill functionality, we noted that many skill users are not only occasionally uncomfortable with the way they interact with voice but also uncertain with how to do it. Things that should come naturally such as the questions to ask or the language to use require such a level of thought that the effort involved becomes prohibitive.

Yes, voice is far simpler than most technology. This is part of its mass appeal. But, like with any new innovation users must learn how best to use and interact with it in order to return the desired results.

It’s easy to be impatient with technology. We are hardwired to want the future now. In voice, we have a technological advancement that requires a complete re-think in the way we search for information and discover content, and that takes time.

The majority of the population are yet to interact with “Voice First” technology in any way and the leap from ‘new’ to ‘established’ communication method isn’t going to happen overnight. Once the tech matures and completing these functions with voice rather than screen becomes a natural option for its user the adoption rates will the fast and wide-spread. On one side there is a need to educate the people currently buying and using Alexa and co but on the other side, for the youth of today, the training is well underway.

I’m not saying we will have to wait a decade for Voice tech to truly catch on but imagine that when, in 10-15 years, an army of Generation Alpha’s enter the workforce. They will have grown up with voice being the first and most comfortable way to communicate with technology. Using this interface that currently feels awkward and clunky will be second nature to these users and voice will flourish. This means there will be a massive expectation for content providers, brands and companies to be ready to provide that service and they (you) need to be ready.

Kids are 100% the future of voice… and the future is closer than you think.

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