Every new technology brings with it a clash of competing standards, formats and operating systems. Veteran observers can recount the (rhetorically) bloody battles pitting Betamax against VHS, HD-DVD against Blu-ray, DVD-A vs. Super Audio CD, Mac vs. PC—we could go on.
The format wars, as they’re colloquially called, are by no means over. There are still competing standards surrounding 4K and high dynamic range video, digital camera media, smart TV operating systems and more. But there is a new contest brewing that could be, in the words of the late Iraqi tyrant Saddam Hussein, “the mother of all battles.”
We’re talking about the battle of digital assistants.
There are several tech heavyweights in this particular ring. Google, with its Now and Assistant platforms (technically distinct assistants that will likely merge soon), Apple’s Siri and Microsoft’s Cortana are all vying to be your virtual assistant, serving up news and weather and integrating with your smart home devices. While Facebook isn’t quite in the digital assistant game just yet, founder Mark Zuckerberg recently detailed how he took it upon himself to hand-code a virtual assistant for his home… in his spare time. (And you thought your hobbies were exhausting.)
But if there was an overarching story emerging from the Consumer Electronics Show in January, it was the breakout performance of Amazon’s Alexa. The company’s digital assistant, already permeating the world of smart home devices, saw scores of new integrations—everything from DVRs and fridges to baby monitors, door locks, air purifiers and more. As the universe of Alexa-enabled products makes clear, the battle to be the digital assistant of choice is really a battle over which company gets to sit at the center of the smart home. And as of today, Amazon clearly has the momentum.
Amazon’s early lead at integrating its assistant with third party devices is fairly substantial, thanks to Apple’s more stringent integration requirements (which has limited the number of devices that can be integrated with Siri). Microsoft is later than both to the game: they only announced a Cortana Skills Development Kit for OEMs in December. Then there’s Google. Like Microsoft, Google has had a later start into the smart home market with its Google Home (which uses Google Assistant). But Google has a very robust and intelligent virtual assistant in Google Now and Google Assistant. What’s more, this battle doesn’t simply hang on which company can secure the broadest adoption out of the gate, but which can make the smartest and most useful virtual assistant over time. And here, Google may have a significant advantage.
First, Google has Android. While consumers may not snap up Google’s own Pixel phone in droves, the majority of smartphone users around the world are on the Android platform. That gives Google’s assistant a perch outside of the home, where it can collect data on users’ habits to inform its virtual assistant when the user returns home. Amazon’s phone foray famously flopped.
“Google Home also displays a rudimentary sense of context, making it better at handling follow-up questions. Ask who the 29th president was, and both gadgets will tell you it was Warren G. Harding. But if you follow by asking, ‘Who was the 30th?’ Alexa doesn’t retain the knowledge that you were talking about presidents, while Google Home will respond, ‘Calvin Coolidge.'”
At the heart of a virtual assistant is artificial intelligence and while all the aforementioned companies are stocking up on AI talent, Google seems to have the upper hand here. Time and again, Google researchers (many poached from academia) have been behind some of the past year’s major AI breakthroughs—from defeating the seemingly unbeatable (by a machine) human Go champion to revolutionizing Google Translate through the application of machine learning.
Amazon’s overwhelming interest is in selling products and entrenching itself as the last retailer standing. But Google’s core mission is to acquire and organize the world’s information. Through its search engine, maps, mobile operating system, email app, document apps, scanned books and more, Google sits atop a mountain of data. Its research into AI is making this data more comprehensible, contextual and personal, with the ultimate (and wildly ambitious) goal of making a digital assistant that can anticipate your needs—possibly before they even bubble up into your consciousness.
If Google’s Assistant has the seeds of a vastly more powerful platform than any of its competitors, there are also plenty of stumbling blocks in its path. For one, Google has a habit of losing interest in products outside of search. And, for Google’s virtual assistant to really flex its muscles, users will need to surrender a chunk of their privacy to enable devices to register patterns of behavior, the better to anticipate their needs. Few consumers seem to care about this trade off to date, but given the volatility of global politics and issues surrounding surveillance, that could change. Still, if Amazon emerged from Las Vegas as the odds-on favorite to win the battle of the virtual assistants, my money’s on Google.