Apple’s Siri virtual assistant is the best-known out there. Amazon dominates the home virtual-assistant appliance market with its Echo line.
But the early leaders rarely end up the market winners. Just a dozen years ago, the dominant mobile phone makers were Nokia and BlackBerry, and tech pundits were certain they’d be clobbered by Palm. Apple didn’t have a phone. Most mobile phone users had never heard of Android.
There’s no reason to believe that today’s virtual-assistant leaders will hold their lead.
The future of the virtual assistant is not where Apple dominates (on mobile phones) or where Amazon does (on home appliances). The space will be characterized by total ubiquity, which means wearables, all electronic devices, many IoT devices and embedded into all the places where humans spend time (offices, cars and homes).
Virtual assistants will become core enterprise tools and will be the main way humans are enhanced through artificial intelligence (A.I.).
I predicted in this space three and a half years ago that virtual-assistant appliances would become ubiquitous in homes, and last year that they would make inroads into the enterprise.
My newest prediction is that Google will win it all, becoming as dominant in virtual-assistant usage in the coming years as Facebook is dominant today in social, or as Apple in smartphone profits.
Here’s why I’m predicting that.
Google just hit the gas
Google I/O starts Tuesday, and the developer’s conference will be accompanied by lots of news, including announcements about new features for Google Assistant.
Google recently announced impressive penetration into third-party hardware. Specifically, in four months, it tripled the number of hardware devices that use Assistant — from January to now, they rose from 1,500 devices to 5,000. (Amazon still dominates, with 12,000 devices.)
Google launched Assistant globally this year and promises to expand from eight languages to “more than 30” by the end of the year.
Lots of people love Google Assistant. Literally! When Google launched the Google Home device in India last month, Google executive Rishi Chandra said that some 450,000 Indians had proposed marriage to Google Assistant.
One reason for all that love is that Google Assistant is better, according to one report. A study published this week by the digital marketing firm Stone Temple found that Google Assistant is more accurate than Amazon’s Alexa, Siri or Microsoft’s Cortana. (Siri was found to be least accurate.)
Google Assistant is arguably the most transparent, which engenders trust. Google makes it easy to delete records of individual Assistant interactions, or all of them.
Google claims that Assistant can perform more than a million “actions.” But that’s about to multiply enormously. Google has been building a developer program to encourage and help developers build apps for Assistant.
This week the company announced a new program that includes investment in startups that build Google Assistant apps. The company also promised mentorship, advice and promotional support, as well as access to new features, tools and the Google Cloud Platform.
Google is specifically interested in app developers creating apps and content for vertical industries.
The new initiative bolsters resources Google has previously offered to foster development, including an inexpensive Voice Kit.
In fact, Google Assistant is so important to Google that the company actually built two special Google Assistant buttons into its most important hardware products. The Google Pixelbook laptop has a dedicated key on the keyboard for conjuring up the Assistant. And the Pixelbook Pen stylus, which is sold separately from the Pixelbook, has a single button that, when pressed, queries the Assistant on whatever is circled with the Pen.
Of course, Google Assistant is already being used informally or unofficially by millions of people in businesses and enterprises. But I believe the new investment initiative will encourage a massive new push into the enterprise.
But here’s the real reason Google Assistant will prevail
Google is the only major virtual-assistant company with the right mission and culture to succeed in this space.
Amazon just wants to sell you stuff; the public doesn’t see Amazon as an information source. Amazon won’t give you the best price on something if that something isn’t for sale on Amazon.
Microsoft doesn’t have a foothold of any significance in mobile or in virtual-assistant appliances.
Apple has no interest in serving people who don’t buy Apple hardware. So Apple won’t even try to reach everybody with Siri.
Meanwhile, Google is at its core a search engine company. Because virtual assistants will largely supplant search engines, Google Assistant must predominate in order for Google to continuing being Google. Google Voice Search is being completely replaced by Google Assistant.
Apple’s advantage was that it started early with the acquisition of Siri eight years ago. Amazon’s advantage was the prescient release of the Amazon Echo appliance three years ago.
But as the competition heats up, it turns out Google has most of the advantages needed to win.
For starters, Google’s Android is the world’s most widely used operating system, and its Play Store has by far the most apps. That translates to far more developers familiar with Google’s development tools and processes, which will eventually translate into far more apps for the Assistant.
Second, the quality of A.I. will increasingly become a deciding factor, and on this score Google is way ahead of Amazon. Already, Google Assistant is being improved on Wear OS (formerly Android Wear) with a new feature called smart suggestions, enabling users to dig deeper into their Assistant queries by simply choosing one of the contextually relevant follow-up options it presents. Behind the scenes, Google’s superior A.I. will reduce errors, increase predictive interaction and generally make Assistant more satisfying and powerful to use than the competition.
Third, Google has more user data, which improves personalization and agency as those very qualities become more central to the virtual-assistant experience. Beyond Search and other services, Google has access to data in your Gmail account, if you use Gmail, which is a gold mine of actionable user data for a personal assistant.
Fourth, as Whitney Houston used to sing, the children are our future. And children are increasingly getting Chromebooks in schools. Between 2012 and 2017, Google’s share of the mobile K-12 education market rocketed from 5.2% to 59%, very much at the expense of Apple and Microsoft. This dominance is taking place at a time when Google Assistant is becoming increasingly integrated with, and central to, the Chromebook experience.
In other words, most high school grads from now on will be intimately familiar with Google Assistant.
In short, Google has far more people using its platforms, has better A.I. and has stronger motivation to win.
Bet on Google Assistant to dominate the coming world of virtual assistants.