Last week, Amazon made a big splash in the digital assistant space introducting its Voice Interoperability Initiative. The effort is backed by more than 30 companies and aims to build “voice services that can work seamlessly with others, while protecting the privacy and security of customers.”
The idea is to allow people to choose their whichever voice assistant service best meets their needs at any given time. So on a particular device, if Alexa is preferred for a voice command or information request, you’ll be able to choose Amazon’s digital assistant. Perhaps in a business setting or for work purposes, you’ll want to use Cortana instead on that same device. And maybe you’ll want third or fourth options as well, all with a single smart speaker or enabled device.
That sounds great in theory but I have some doubts.
Sure, I’m always going to side in general with giving people more choices for their technology needs, not fewer. And in that regard, the Voice Interoperatiblity Initiate is a positive step forward. In fact, I made one of my own technology purchases based on such a choice.
When the Sonos One speakers arrived nearly two years ago in 2017, I bought a pair of them not just because they sounded great, worked with my preferred music services, and supported Amazon Alexa. I also bought them for the promised addition of Google Assistant support. That took longer than I expected but it arrived earlier this year and I now have a single set of smart speakers with two different voice assistant options.
The choice between Amazon Alexa and Google Assistant is an either-or situation. I can’t seamlessly switch between the two simultaneously; instead, I have to configure the Sonos app for my assistant of choice.
I’m OK with that even though it’s pretty much the opposite of what the Voice Interoperability Initiative is promising. Between the various device brands and service partnerships with this effort, I’d be able to seamlessly ask whichever supported assistant I want on a device.
However, there aren’t many digital assistant partners involved with Amazon. In fact, other than Microsoft, which has Cortana, the other companies all make speakers, processors, or other physical hardware, save for service companies such as Salesforce and Spotify. The lone exception is Baidu and its DuerOS voice assistant, which we’ll likely never see here in the US.
There’s no partnership with Apple, Google or Samsung, for example, which have Siri, Google Assistant, and Bixby respectively. So really, which digital assistants could one choose based on any results of the initiative? Mostly Amazon with a side of Cortana. That’s not much choice.
Additionally, I’ve used a few devices that actually do support multiple voice assistants simultaneously. I didn’t care for the experience because not all digital assistants are equal. What I mean by that, is that for some tasks, one is more competant or has more features than the other. So the experience becomes disjointed or disappointing when asking the “lesser” assistant to do something that only the “better” one can do.
If there isn’t nearly complete parity in natural language processing and command fulfillment between digital assistants, having multiple choices becomes a bit of a guessing game as you try to remember who does what best. Or, even worse, you end up just going with the “better” one by default all the time, which essentially negates the entire benefit of having the choice between voice assistants.
I really don’t see the companies developing digital assistants try to make their services the same or equal to their competitors. That makes no sense in this competitive voice-enabled paradigm. So there isn’t likely to be that parity one would need for a great voice experience regardless of which assistant you choose. Again, the Voice Interoperability Initiative sounds good in theory for consumers, but when it comes to the reality it will bring, I don’t see it as a huge benefit.