KEY POINTS

  • Voice assistants are software programs that respond to voice commands in order to perform a range of tasks. They can find an opening in a consumer’s calendar to schedule an appointment, place an online order for tangible goods, and act as a hands-free facilitator for texting, among many, many other tasks.
  • US smartphone users are adopting voice assistants in droves. Sixty-five percent were using them in 2015, up significantly from 30% just two years prior.
  • Technological advances are making voice assistants more capable. These improvements fall into two categories:
    • Improvements in artificial intelligence (AI), specifically natural language processing (NLP) and machine learning.
    • Gains in computing and telecommunications infrastructure, like more powerful smartphones, better cellular networks, and faster cloud computing.
  • Changes in consumer behavior and habits are also leading to greater adoption. Chief among these are increased overall awareness and a higher level of comfort demonstrated by younger consumers.
  • The voice assistant landscape is divided between smartphone- and speaker-based assistants. These distinctions, while important now, will lose relevance in the long run as more assistants can be used on both kinds of devices.
  • The primary players in the space are Apple's Siri, Microsoft's Cortana, Google Assistant, Amazon's Alexa, and Samsung's Viv. Each has strengths and weaknesses that are explored in more detail below.
  • Stakes in the competition for dominance in the voice assistant market are high. As each assistant becomes more interconnected with an ecosystem of devices that it can control, more popular platforms will have a sizable advantage. 

Introduction

In 1997, Bill Gates predicted that within 10 years the technology behind voice recognition and speech output would be perfected. He believed that subsequently voice would be part of the standard computer interface, and possibly displace buttons and keyboards. Turns out, Gates was a little off — the first robust voice assistant didn’t come to smartphones until 2011 with the introduction of Siri on the iPhone 4S, after earlier computer-based iterations failed to gain significant traction. And even now in 2017, 20 years after Gates’ original prediction, these technologies are far from perfect.

Although Gates may have been off in the timing of his estimate by a decade, he was right in his outlook. Despite numerous imperfections, voice assistants have at long last become standard, at least in developed markets.

In 2016, digital voice assistants evolved from clunky and frivolous [...]