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Siri-Killer Viv Faces an Uphill Battle

Startup Viv says it has invented a smarter virtual assistant—but it could be smothered by the business clout of tech giants like Apple and Amazon.

Next week startup Viv will provide more details on a virtual assistant mobile app the company’s founders say will be much more useful than Apple’s Siri or similar existing services. But although the company has provided impressive demonstrations, the nature of the tech industry will make it difficult for Viv to get traction.

Viv lets you use your voice to do things like order food delivery or movie tickets, and can handle complex requests. The company is well-funded and was founded by two men who created Siri and then sold it to Apple. The Washington Post says the company has already turned down acquisition offers from Google and Facebook—suggesting that this time they want to go it alone.

But it is very difficult to get a large number of people to use a new app.

Forrester estimated last year that people in the U.S. spend 84 percent of their time on their phones using just five third-party apps. Apps from Google and Facebook accounted for 25 percent of the time spent. Viv would have to spend a lot of money on marketing or create something wildly attractive and useful to earn a spot on many phones.

This leads to Viv’s second challenge, a kind of chicken and egg problem. Viv could be very attractive to consumers if it really can help out with anything, thanks to many service providers going to the trouble of integrating their systems with Viv’s. But integrating with Viv is only attractive to companies if a lot of consumers use it.

Some things plug into Viv already. The company’s engineers placed a very complex pizza order for the Washington Post journalist, for example.

But many tech companies very central to consumers’ lives—like Apple, Amazon, and Google—aren’t likely to want to help broaden Viv’s skills. They have mobile or voice-operated assistants of their own. They are trying to improve those assistants by making competing demands on service providers.

Amazon’s voice-operated assistant Alexa, bundled with the Echo speaker, plugs into services such as Uber and Spotify, and the company is trying to bring more on board. Facebook is trying to lure companies to develop chatbot-style services inside its Messenger app, which is used by almost a billion people each month.

Service providers may wish that giants like Facebook had less control over their access to consumers, but ultimately have to prioritize going to where the people are.

Viv’s smoothest path to getting its technology widely used to its full power is to be acquired by one of those big companies (even though the largest could probably build similar technology themselves). The company’s founders are probably right that we could and should get access to much smarter and more useful assistants than Siri. But if Viv is launched independently it could be difficult to prove that.

(Read more: Washington Post, “Facebook Wants You to Chat With Business Bots”)

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