Adoption of voice-first assistants expected to skyrocket

The total projected footprint for voice-first assistants like Amazon's Alexa will be 33 million devices by the end of 2017, up from 1.7 million in 2015, analytics firm predicts

Adoption of voice-first assistants expected to skyrocket
Credit: Derek Walter

Amazon’s voice-first assistant technology could be worth billions for the e-tailer in just a few years, says an investment bank quoted by Fox News last week. RBC Capital Markets says Alexa could trigger $10 billion in revenue for Amazon by 2020.

This startling prediction comes alongside recent speculation that Alexa will be incorporated into smartphones sometime in 2017. That wrapping-in (if it were to include the voice element, rather than simply account management) would be part of a major second-generation update. It also means Amazon will compete with native telephony-supplied AI voice products such as Siri.

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There is also speculation that Amazon will get into the voice calling business outright, creating a kind of global intercom for users through Alexa in the same update. It could take the guise of an always-on phone link, writes Jason Del Ray in a Recode article.

Those kinds of moves, with those kinds of revenue numbers, could significantly disrupt traditional telco and do it perhaps more severely than the mobile network-oriented messaging apps, such as WhatsApp has done to SMS. You mightn’t need the mobile network at all if there were enough Wi-Fi-driven Alexa devices around, for example.

VoiceLabs provides one of the first analytics products for voice-first, as it calls voice-commanded assistants such as Amazon Alexa’s Echo and Google Assistant. It, too, has made predictions.

In a report, published in January, it delivers projections for voice-first technology that are as equally staggering as the aforementioned $10 billion Amazon stands to gain that has been projected by the Canadian bank.

VoiceLabs says in 2015, 1.7 million voice-first devices shipped. In 2017, it says that annual ship will be 24.5 million devices.

“This is a large and growing market,” the company, somewhat understatedly, says.

Including 2016’s 6.5 million devices shipped, the total projected footprint will be 33 million devices by the end of 2017. For perspective, there were about 125 million households in the U.S. in 2016, according to the U.S. Bureau of the Census.

Voice-first devices have been primarily a U.S. market to date. Amazon’s Echo hardware, for example, has been predominantly available in the U.S. only. Echo products for markets in Germany and the U.K. were launched in late 2016.

Specialization for voice-first assistants coming

Interestingly, although folks buying the gear aren’t really differentiating between brands, and don’t see much difference between the current offerings, the analytics firm says AI voice assistants will become more specialized soon.

VoiceLabs’ report says web and general knowledge will get slam-dunked by Google’s products. Amazon will mine commerce, and a Microsoft entry could win at gaming if it improves the Cortana voice AI product within Xbox.

Both Google and Amazon will be fighting it out for television and home automation. And Apple, another hardware newbie, will want to include delivering a mobile product in a transportable environment with its Airpod headphones in tow. All of the hardware makers will be going after the kitchen, living room and bedroom.

One big question, and something that despite the uptake hasn’t really been resolved, is just what do people want to do with the virtual assistants? They’re still learning, VoiceLabs says. “Music streaming and books, home automation, games and entertainment, and news and podcasts dominate” now, it says.

Branding engagement is an as-yet-untapped opportunity, VoiceLabs says.

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