Looking back at the last two Consumer Electronics Shows, you can see a tremendous focus on voice assistants. However, there was a key difference between the 2017 and 2018 shows: Amazon Alexa was all over the place in 2017 and it took until the next year for Google Assistant to follow.
You can now say that both are trying to get their digital assistant tech everywhere. But Amazon’s first mover advantage, combined with some other key factors, is keeping Alexa at the forefront of this market.
What makes this clever is that unlike Google, Apple or Microsoft, Amazon doesn’t have a desktop or mobile software platform of its own. And yet, the company’s Alexa efforts continue to thrive and be readily accessible to most mainstream customers. Why is that?
Being the first to a market doesn’t guarantee success or the ability to be a market leader, of course. Just look at how in the first decade of Y2k, there was a vast array of MP3 players out before the iPod. Yet Apple’s iPod essentially became synonymous with — and eventually the clear market leader of — the MP3 player.
Amazon has been smart with its initial Alexa products: Aside from launching first, the devices were actually easily usable by mere mortals (similar to the successful iPod), especially after Amazon added smart home support with voice commands. Again, it was the first do to this.
Speaking of firsts, Amazon opened up its Alexa Voice Services and Skills development earlier than similar offerings from Apple, Google and Microsoft. And that’s huge. By doing this, Amazon was able to attract developers sooner and made it easy to build Alexa Skills. And trust me: It is easy. I was able to build a skill that plays the latest episode of our Internet of Things Podcast simply by asking. Aside from one technical issue — at the time, the podcast wasn’t hosted on an https site and Amazon requires that for any audio streaming — the whole effort took me about an hour, and I’m not a true developer by any definition.
How does that help Amazon? You can see the impact simply by looking at the number of skills that developers have created for the different platforms. As of March 2018, Amazon supported 30,000 Alexa skills. Meanwhile, Google says there are over 1,000,000 actions to try, but data suggests that number represents a range of use cases, not actual developer actions. Voicebot.ai tracks the total number of skills / actions / apps for each assistant and back in January showed that Alexa had a commanding lead over Google, which didn’t quite have 2,000 actions available for Assistant.
One other note from a developer standpoint: You want your apps and services to work with companies that consumers trust. This is subjective observation on my part, but I suspect more consumers trust Amazon more than they trust Google. That’s why Amazon can’t afford to trip itself up with consumers experiencing glitches such as Amazon recording whole conversations and sending them to the outside world.
Aside from skill or app development, there’s a question about the ease of integration for each assistant into devices as well. While Google now offers a development kit for its voice Assistant, Amazon has long provided one as well. In fact, there are now nearly one dozen such kits and reference designs to prototype Alexa devices. By contrast, the Google Assistant SDK runs on a Raspberry Pi or a Linux device for most development purposes.
Lastly, Amazon can turn its lack of a dedicated software platform into a positive. Think about the largest consumer market in the world based on population. It’s China. And guess what: Google is generally has “persona non grata” status in China.
Smartphones don’t run Google Android with the Google suite of apps and Google Play Store access, for example. Instead, phone makers use the open source version of Android — the one without all of the Google features. Amazon isn’t locked out of China like Google is, so it can get Alexa on any number of devices, regardless of the software platform used. That won’t guarantee success — Amazon competes with a number of large online retailers and other China-based voice assistant tech in the country — but it gives the company a chance in a market where Google has none.
With first mover status, broader developer support and development kits, a range of Alexa devices at various price points and positive consumer sentiments, Alexa isn’t going away anytime soon. In fact, she’s coming to the Marriott line of hotels through the just announced Alexa for Hospitality program. As much as Google is pushing its Assistant, Amazon is still the queen of voice commands and will be in the near future.