Are Voice Ecosystems The Next Antitrust Battleground For Big Tech?

Voice Ecosystems And Antitrust In Big Tech

In less than a decade, voice-activated artificial intelligence (AI) assistants like Alexa and Siri have gone from something seen in science-fiction films to mainstream consumer touchpoints for larger digital ecosystems. In fact, the latest edition of PYMNTS’ and Visa’s How We Will Pay survey found that more than three in 10 consumers own voice assistants, compared to just 1.4 out of 10 in 2017.

And although consumers are still most likely to use those devices to do things like check the weather, play music or search for recipes, they’re increasingly pivoting toward using the systems for commerce. Our latest survey observed a 25 percent increase in the portion of consumers making purchases via AI-enabled speakers. That rose to 9.6 percent of all consumers as of late in 2019, versus just 7.7 percent a year earlier.

All of that sounds promising for the future of voice as the next great channel for connected commerce – and promising as well for voice device providers like Apple, Amazon and Google looking to expand their footprints.

In fact, European Union regulators see it as perhaps too good of an opportunity. Bloomberg this week reported that the EU is including voice assistants and their power to drive commerce as one of several issues in a “sweeping” new antitrust probe that the body has launched against tech giants.

“Once big companies use their power, they can very, very quickly push markets beyond the tipping point where competition turns into monopoly,” EU Competition Commissioner Margrethe Vestager told reporters, according to Bloomberg. “If we don’t act in good time, there is a serious risk that this will happen again with the Internet of Things.”

Voice assistants have apparently captured so much regulatory interest because of the power they take on as a commerce intermediary that can change how consumers interact with potential products. While consumers in a brick-and-mortar store would see everything available to them on a shelf, voice assistants could display only what Siri, Alexa or the Google Assistant elects to show them.

The EU’s concerns are apparently two-fold. First, regulators want to know about all of the highly useful consumer data that tech firms gather via smart devices – and whether that gives companies unfair advantages over competitors.

A second worry is the potential for Big Tech to use voice-enabled ecosystems to unfairly lock out competitors. For instance, Bloomberg noted that companies could program smart speakers to push all requests to buy products to a single shopping site like Amazon, bypassing all competing offers.

The EU is seeking information from some 400 global organizations, with a preliminary report scheduled for next spring and a final conclusion to be published in summer 2021, Bloomberg said.

The probe will reportedly cover not only devices like smart speakers, but also things like connected refrigerators and smart TVs. Connected cars will likely be subject to a separate review.

Vestager said the goal is to prevent private voice ecosystems from hijacking the market. “We see interoperability is of the essence if this market is to remain open and contestable,” Vestager told reporters.

She said regulators will probe companies “in all of these value chains – those who make the most assistants, those who make devices, those who make digital services, but also standard-setters” who determine industry benchmarks.

The probe comes at a time when Big Tech is pushing to create interoperable standards for smart homes. Players are trying to promote the adoption of a new royalty-free connectivity standard to make smart-home products more compatible and secure.

The project includes Amazon, Google, Apple and the Zigbee Alliance, which includes firms like IKWA, Samsung SmartThings and Silicon Labs. It aims to build a new open-source effort for smart-home tech to foster the implementation of a unified protocol.

“The decision to leverage these technologies is expected to accelerate the development of the protocol and deliver benefits to manufacturers and consumers faster,” the group said in announcing the effort.

Such collaboration might be in the future of voice commerce if Big Tech can convince EU regulators that it’s not designed to trap consumers in a single ecosystem. But as our How We Will Pay survey shows, voice is already quickly developing into a new consumer-commerce channel.

Given how people are increasing their online shopping due to COVID-19, one might expect adoption rates to climb even higher when we study the subject again later this year. But adoption is already large enough to have earned some antitrust heat – which means we might see more attempts by Big Tech to look passionately collaborative instead of cutthroat competitive.