Ecosystems

Amazon’s 20K Devices, And The Tightening Race For AI Dominance

When 2018 rang in, Alexa was compatible with just over 4,000 devices. A little bit past the halfway mark in 2018, Alexa’s device count has jumped five-fold, as over 20,000 devices are now integrated with Amazon’s AI voice assistant.

In the last year alone, Alexa has apparently sung “Happy Birthday” a few million times, and has told over 100 million jokes – at least if Amazon VP Daniel Rausch is to be believed. He dropped the news about Alexa’s massive device expansion – and the factoid about jokes – at Berlin’s IFA tech show last weekend.

It was one of many new data points on offer over the weekend, as Rausch highlighted where Alexa is growing, who is profiting and where it’s headed next. The news hits the wires as Amazon’s competitors have all been ramping up their game, hoping to shake some of Alexa’s emerging dominance in the field.

More Is More

As Amazon’s VP of smart home products, Rausch had a lot of interesting data tidbits to share. The number of brands using Alexa has gone from 1,200 at the beginning of the year to about 3,500 as of today. He also noted that there are now 50,000 Alexa skills to choose from, built by “hundreds of thousands of developers” in over 180 nations.

And, he noted, Alexa may tell a lot of jokes, but the potential for profitability that comes built into Amazon’s voice-activated AI is far from a laughing matter. Adding voice capabilities, for example, has helped some firms push big bumps in sales. The developers, according to Rausch, are often well-compensated for their efforts in making Alexa increasingly sticky with an ever-widening array of apps, with some making thousands of dollars a month.

One presumably exceptional case, referenced by Rausch, involved a college student bringing in $10,000 per month on the back of his wildly popular word of the day skill.

Moreover, he noted, as Alexa is becoming more widely embedded in devices of all kinds, voice is beginning to really emerge as a superior tool for smart home management.

“It turned out your smartphone is actually a pretty terrible remote control for your house. You don’t want to fish around in your pocket, open applications and unlock your phone to control the device that’s right in front of you,” Rausch said. “Voice has truly unlocked the smart home. That’s because it’s actually simpler.”

And, of course, why stop at the home? Amazon is working overtime to expand Alexa into cars, hotels and office spaces, where consumers could use a digital assistant.

Insofar as Amazon is clearly and commandingly leading the pack thus far – so far, so good. But, as Rausch noted, it is still very early days of building voice ecosystems, both in terms of capability and market penetration. He noted that Amazon has “barely scratched the surface” of what it can do with voice.

And while Amazon is working to dig deeper, it is far from well along in that effort. Apple, Samsung and Google are all avidly trying to crack the voice market (some more successfully than others), and their efforts have been logging progress of late.

Forward Motion

The least mentioned – and often forgotten – Samsung offering of Bixby, for example, has recently announced that it will be courting more developer interests in building voice apps for its digital assistant. Starting later this year, Samsung will allow third-party developers to build apps for Bixby.

DJ Koh, CEO of Samsung’s mobile unit, told CNBC that the company will release a software developer kit (SDK), as well as an application programming interface (API). The SDK will allow developers to make apps with Bixby, while the API will allow Bixby to integrate with other apps. Samsung says it will make those tools available for developers after its November conference; they believe that by opening up their site to the creative abilities of the developer community, their smaller AI platform could get the boost it needs to make a mark in this race.

“Opening the ecosystem in November, then this baby (Bixby) will grow. So I do not want to see just six months’ or nine months’ performance, no. Because this is like a long journey; it’s just starting, because with the new Bixby embedded in the Note 9, a new baby was born,” Koh noted, referring to the series of upgrades for Bixby, concurrent with the announcement of the Note 9. Those upgrades included better natural language processing skills, more ease of working within a single conversation thread and an increase in inter-phone navigation tools.

And Samsung isn’t alone in evolving its assistant. The oft-critiqued team at Apple seems to have gotten a bit more serious about helping Siri get smarter, and perhaps become a better conversationalist. As of last week, a new job listing from Apple appeared, saying it is seeking a writer and editor who can help evolve Siri from a less than totally lauded digital assistant into a “distinct, recognizable character.”

“In this role, you will lead a team of writers and editors to deliver polished and consistent dialog for Siri,” Apple says in the listing. “You will collaborate with international writers, designers, engineering and Apple marketing staff to help Siri be more effective and delightful.” Apple says the ideal candidate excels at the craft of writing and loves language and wordplay.

This latest listing comes as part of a bit of a hiring spree Apple has been on in the last 12 months. Over 142 Siri-related job listings were open in March of this year. As of August 2018, that number was 194.

Meanwhile, over at Google, the Google Assistant (Alexa’s nearest and most evenly matched competitor) has upgraded its language skills, and is now said to be bilingual. As of now, a user can speak to the Google Assistant in English, German, French, Spanish, Italian or Japanese, with more languages promised to be coming soon. Once a user picks which two languages Google is meant to understand, they can switch back and forth without giving any other commands.

It is the first AI voice assistant to have this capability.

Will bilingual capability be the killer use case that allows Google to elbow past Amazon? We … kind of doubt it.

But as the race gets further along, the stakes are getting higher, and the skill counts look set to rise.

The weather may be cooling off for the year – but the voice AI ecosystem seems to be just starting its 2018 heat wave.

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