I recently learned that it’s dangerous to suggest that Google Assistant isn’t quite as mind-blowingly amazing as some suggest. I stand by my results in that test, as well as in my day to day usage of the products. It’s clear we’re still in very early days of these products and they’re all simply different levels of bad.
So putting the entire “which voice assistant is best” debate aside, what are we thinking the long term goals for these voice assistants? I listened to a very good discussion of Alexa as an operating system on the latest episode of the Exponent podcast where the hosts talked about how Amazon is running away with this market. It was a good, smart discussion, but I was struck by how strongly the hosts seemed to suggest this was “the next big thing” as if it’s going to take over the smartphone as the most important tech in people’s lives.
I don’t know how much I buy that at this point, and a big part of this is with the public’s general disinterest in voice assistants to this point. Siri has been around since the iPhone 4s in 2011 and it’s not something I almost ever see people use when I’m out in the world. I occasionally see people dictation text messages, but that’s it. I can probably count on one hand the number of times I’ve seen people ask Siri to do something for them or ask it a question on one hand.
It’s even worse for Google Home/Assistant, as I can’t think of a single time I have seen someone use it in public…ever. I work in a building full of developers, where the Android to iOS ratio is probably 4:1, and I have never seen any of them use Google’s assistant. We talk tech all the time, and it still never comes up as a conversation.
Which brings us to Alexa, Amazon’s assistant, which seems to be doing very well for itself. I own an Echo Dot and use Alexa every day. She’s useful and does some things really, really well, but again I don’t hear people talking about how much they enjoy their Echos and how “you must get one!” I hear this a lot in tech circles, but I don’t see it in my day-to-day.
This general non-existence of voice assistants in my day-to-day life is making me question how much this is one of those things the tech community is trying to make happen by willing it into existence (3D TVs), rather than creating something that people actually want. I tend to think that it is indeed something people want, but the tech is so underwhelming right now that people just don’t care yet. It’s still a punch line to most people.
All of which makes me less optimistic about these as something that can displace the smart phone as the center of your digital life. People of all stripes were gushing over the iPhone when it was revealed in 2007. It didn’t matter if you were a nerd who lives for tech, or someone who is more mainstream and only uses the tech that actually makes their life better, everyone wanted an iPhone. The reason people didn’t all jump on at once was because it was hella expensive ($599 on contract!) and was exclusive of Cingular in the US and few other carriers worldwide. Sure it didn’t have a few things like MMS and Exchange support, but as a product it was stunning. Its sales numbers skyrocketed by expanding who could buy one over the next few years.
Meanwhile the Amazon Echo is available from the biggest retailer in the world for $49 and is advertised every single time you load Amazon.com. This space may have a bright future, and I sincerely hope it does because they’re great. I love my Echo and find it incredibly useful, but I don’t think it’s more than an accessory. Much like my Apple Watch, I have no illusions of this taking over my life, it’s just another piece of the puzzle. My iPhone and MacBook Pro are the centers of my digital life in early 2017, with the Apple Watch and Amazon Echo playing important, but (if you’ll allow the pun) assistant roles.
If voice recognition can get better much faster than it has, or if these assistants can parse out much more complex requests than they can now, then I may change my tune, but I think the advantages smartphones bring to the table (visuals, direct manipulation, speed, and more) make them far more compelling for most tasks for the foreseeable future.