Amazon doesn’t have an official presence at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, but it’s making no shortage of headlines thanks to its Alexa smart assistant. Don’t assume, though, that the AI butler will be king forever.
If you’ve been following the news coming out of CES this year, you’ll have noticed that voice-controlled AI assistants are everywhere. Conversational interfaces, which we predicted would be a breakthrough technology in 2016, have already made a big impression on consumers, and now companies want to bake them into as many pieces of hardware as possible.
Leading the pack by a wide margin is Alexa. It’s made its way into third-party speakers similar to Amazon's own Echo device. It’s been loaded into robots. It’s escaped the house and made its way into automobiles. It’s even inside a smart fridge.
As Android Central has argued, CES serves to demonstrate that Alexa is at this point far more than Amazon’s Echo speaker. Indeed, it appears to be turning into a fully fledged operating system—just one that’s different from those that have gone before it, because you interact with it via your voice rather than a screen.
And Amazon finds itself in a particularly strong position because it’s opened the software up for other companies to bake into their own products. In fact, it is clearly actively encouraging third parties to roll the assistant into their own products and build new apps, known as Skills, to run on Alexa.
The system’s nature means that it’s easy to build into any old device: it simply needs a modest chipset, mic, speaker, and Internet connection. That’s because all the complex business of dealing with questions is performed on the cloud.
It's also already popular. Millions of people have tried, used, and lived with Alexa. In fact, such is the demand for it that Amazon sold out of its Echo speaker ahead of the holidays.
Openness, ease of integration, and popularity have all contributed to the assistant turning up in so many products this week in Las Vegas. Unsurprisingly, then, some commentators have declared that Alexa won CES. They’re probably right.
But that doesn’t mean that it will remain on top.
Amazon’s edge is its impressive head start. It first launched the Echo speaker back in November 2014 and made it officially available to all in the U.S. from 2015. By comparison, Google’s rival device, which makes use of the search company's own Assistant AI butler, only made it to market in late 2016. And so far it hasn’t been opened up for use by other companies.
If Google does open the software up, though—like it did with its Android smartphone OS—it could give Alexa some stiff competition. As our own Tom Simonite has explained:
Google has a crucial advantage in the race to prove out that idea. It’s been working on technology that answers people’s questions for a long time, and has invested more heavily in machine learning than its rivals … People who compared Echo, and its Alexa assistant, with Google Home found the latter to be significantly better at understanding language and answering questions.
There’s speculation that Apple may join the race, too, extending its use of Siri from iPhone and Macs to some kind of home device. Certainly it, like Google, would be playing catch-up. But superior offerings could trump the advantage of being the first mover. So, yes, Alexa may have won CES. But that doesn’t mean Amazon has won the smart assistant war.