Android Intelligence Analysis

What the virtual assistant battle is really all about, in a single word

Once you understand why all these tech companies so desperately want you to adore their assistants, the push for a "smart" everything suddenly makes a lot more sense.

Virtual Assistant Battle
PIRO4D (CC0)

With Apple's better-late-than-never arrival into the smart speaker market this month, there's been lots of talk about the state of the smart assistant — and why, ultimately, all these companies are working so hard to get you talking to their technology.

From Siri to Alexa and Google Assistant to Bixby (yes, even Bixby), the virtual assistants are all soldiers in the tech world's latest battle for our attention. And what these artificially intelligent entities are really all about comes down to a single four-syllable word:

Ecosystem.

Whether you're Apple, Amazon, Google, or any of the less equipped companies fighting to get a foot into this arena, the virtual assistant is the latest and most promising way to get folks further entrenched in your ecosystem — and thus likely to keep using the associated products and services that benefit your bottom line.

And all those smart speakers — Google Home, Amazon Echo, and Apple HomePod? They're the gateway drugs to the greater parent ecosystems.

Sound crazy? Maybe. But the more you think about it, the more you realize how spot-on of an analogy it is.

Ecosystem and the virtual assistant's grasp

Let's use Amazon as an example: Say you have a single Echo in your home — maybe one of those cute little Echo Dots that Amazon practically gives away (and quite literally did give away over the holidays, possibly even at a loss, according to some analyst estimates). You set it up in your living room and start experimenting with what it can do.

Boy howdy, talking to Alexa is fun! And if it's that useful in the living room, heck, maybe you'd like one in your kitchen, too. After all, you just got the Echo all set up to control your fancy new network-connected lights. You want to be able to set the mood whilst simmering your signature winter soup, don't you? Plus, Echo makes it so easy to order stuff simply by speaking, and you just realized (mid-simmering) that you desperately need a new ladle. Who has the energy to write something down on a list or go search for it on a website anymore?

With Echo in your kitchen, then, you realize how convenient it is to be able to control your music hands-free — especially with the Prime-included Amazon Music service. That'd be nice to have in the ol' boudoir, wouldn't it? And that new included call-making feature could be pretty handy in the home office. What's 80 bucks for a couple more of these doohickies?

Wait a second: Can't Alexa send texts through your Android phone, too? Why, yes — yes, it can, just as of a couple weeks ago, in fact! All you've gotta do is install the Alexa app onto your most personal of personal-tech devices, and then you can send standard SMS messages simply by speaking to any Echo.

While you've got that app installed, by the way, don't forget that it can now let you talk to Alexa directly from your Android phone, too — another recent addition. Alexa's, like, practically your BFF at this point. You know her, and she knows you. She's already set up to work with your home speakers, your favorite music services, and any smart appliances you have. She's probably gonna be on your home computer soon as well. Maybe even in your car.

Alexa is everywhere you want to be. She's the assistant you want to talk to. Oh, and don't forget you need to reorder your laundry detergent. Alexa knows the kind you buy. Just tell her what you need — on that first innocuous-seeming Echo Dot you bought or on any of the numerous other places she's since taken up residence.

Google's not-so-secret ecosystem goal

Now, let's be clear: Alexa's the example we used as an illustration here, but the same principle applies to pretty much any virtual assistant and the company behind it. The specifics of each organization's goals may vary, but they're all working to get you further committed to their ecosystem — in as many corners of your life as possible.

As I've noted before, we've entered the post-OS era — a time when the question of what operating system you use takes a back seat to that of which virtual assistant you allow into your life. And that's precisely why Google has shifted its focus and made Google Assistant the driving force behind most of its major efforts. More than anything — more than Android, more than Chrome OS — Google wants you to think of Google as your ecosystem and the connective tissue in your life.

This is no secret, of course. Just look at this excerpt from a recent interview-driven profile of Rick Osterloh, the head of Google's ever-expanding hardware division, in Wired — looking back at Osterloh's first months on the job leading up to his inaugural product launch event:

For the new hardware team, the task was clear: Find more ways to get Google Assistant in front of people and build a sustainable business around it. Oh, and hurry, because Google is already behind, with Siri and Alexa already entrenched in consumers’ minds. Osterloh poured resources into the Pixel phone, a nascent project between a few Googlers and HTC, in which Google was taking on full responsibility for design and engineering for the first time and HTC was merely the manufacturer. The hope was that with this phone, at last, Google could give its software the physical form it needed. “We have a terrific ecosystem position with Android, but I think no one was really delivering the full Google experience,” Osterloh says.

The full Google experience. That is what the company now revolves around pursuing — the Google ecosystem — and at its core, that is what Google Assistant is all about. The future, as the thinking goes, isn't in traditional box-on-a-page web search. It's in interacting with all the stuff around you. And if Google Assistant is the genie inside all that stuff, at the end of the day, you're still a Google customer.

The bigger picture perspective

The question of how Google makes money from such an unusual arrangement may still be a bit murky — and that's no accident, as CEO Sundar Pichai is quick to remind us — but at the very least, Assistant allows Google to remain the nucleus around which your digital life exists. If nothing else, that enriches Google in its long-standing core currency of data. Put simply, the more Google knows about you, the more effective ads it can serve you across the internet and its various services. And having Assistant plastered all over your life — even soon in Nest products — sure provides a lot more points of collection.

Amazon's ecosystem, meanwhile, is all about sales and making it as easy as possible for you to order anything, anytime, anywhere, especially with the convenience of your $99-a-year Prime membership — the company's true secret weapon in keeping you as a loyal customer (even if it isn't always worth the cost and might sometimes be working against you, as a Washington Post columnist recently argued — but the more you grow accustomed to using it, he also noted, the less likely you are to cancel. And guess what ordering stuff through Alexa does for that habit?).

For Apple, keeping you in the ecosystem means keeping you as an Apple customer who uses Apple services and — critically — buys the Apple products around them, year after year, no matter how ho-hum they may occasionally be. The more you rely on on things like Siri, iMessage, and Apple Music, the more likely you are to want products that revolve around them. (Interestingly, this is a model Google seems increasingly positioned to pursue, too — whether as a mere vehicle for a broader goal or as a secondary source of significant revenue. Time will tell.)

Even the fringe virtual assistant players like Samsung have similar aims. Heck, the company's 2017 fourth quarter report, aimed at impressing investors, lays it out bare (the emphasis here is mine):

Samsung will ... drive forward new businesses related to AI/IoT by strengthening the ecosystem based on Bixby.

Samsung will also improve the connectivity and usability of home appliances by expanding the application of Bixby.

Looking ahead to 2018, demand for smartphones is expected to rise thanks to growing replacement demand for premium smartphones. In order to expand the sales of premium smartphones, Samsung will strengthen product competitiveness by differentiating core features and services, such as the camera and Bixby.

As for the TV market in 2018, demand for ultra-large screen and premium TVs is expected to grow led by major sporting events. As the premium market continues to expand, the company will aim to strengthen its new lineup ... [and] provide new experiences and add value by applying Bixby and SmartThings to its TVs.

Again, in a word: ecosystem. Bixby is the connective tissue Samsung hopes will hook you in and keep you buying Samsung products — not just phones but also home appliances, televisions, and yet-to-be-seen A.I.-oriented gadgets — because, like Google with Assistant or Amazon with Alexa, it's the standard Samsung thinks you'll grow to know and appreciate.

(Unfortunately for Samsung, Bixby has become a bit of a joke; without the reach, the existing ecosystem, and the associated level of data to be able to compete with the likes of Google when it comes to finding and providing useful information, it inevitably feels like a watered-down, less powerful, and generally pointless version of Google's own offering. And that seems unlikely to change anytime soon.)

If all this talk about loyalty and profits has you feeling a bit used, meanwhile, remember: The only way any of these companies can convince us to latch onto their services is to make them good — really good. And with this field still being so young and immature, there's plenty of room for growth and improvement.

That means, just as we've seen with smartphone platforms over the past several years, making a virtual assistant the one to beat is going to be a cutthroat competition for quite a while. And guess what? Having tech companies work hard to impress us and keep impressing us over time is what makes products get meaningfully better with each iteration and update.

There's no room for complacency in this ecosystem-oriented race right now — and you don't need a virtual assistant to tell you why that can only be good news for us, the regular ol' goofuses who make these products parts of our lives.

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