Five years ago, a voice-activated device was mostly something that existed in the realm of science fiction. Siri had been around for a year or two on Apple devices, but was more a novelty than a frequently used tool, and it would be a year before Alexa made her formal debut to the world.
Flash-forward to the waning days of 2018, and voice-activated devices have become an important part of the consumer’s connected device mix. According to the second annual edition of the PYMNTS/Visa How We Will Pay Survey, 28 percent of all U.S. consumers report owning a voice-activated device. And while today, the most common uses for those voice-enabled devices are listening to music, checking the weather and asking “fun questions,” according to reports, our most recent data indicates that those uses are starting to shift toward more commerce-oriented ends.
According to the PYMNTS/Visa data, among consumers who report owning voice-enabled devices, 27 percent used them to make a purchase in the seven days we tracked their purchasing behavior.
Given the rapid expansion of the market – and the device's ease of use as a payments enabler – the race to capture the 72 percent of consumers who have yet to take the connected speaker plunge is in full swing.
According to the Consumer Technology Association, over a third of American consumers will purchase a smart home device of some sort this holiday season. Not surprisingly, the two leading competitors in the field, Amazon and Google, have thrown massive discounts at the range of Echo and Google Home products for sale this holiday season.
Though Amazon’s Echo line and Google’s Home products are the two leaders in the field, Amazon leads the race thus far by a pretty strong margin – 64.5 percent of the voice-enabled smart speaker market to Google’s 19.6 percent share.
But with 75 or so percent of the smart speaker race yet to be run, Google is aggressively looking to close the gap. In the run-up to the 2018 holiday season, Google has done much more than offer deals on devices to get consumers on board.
Hey Siri, Okay Google
One of Google’s flashier claims is that its Android Assistant is live on half a billion devices worldwide – a true statement because of the massive number of Android phones on Earth.
But Google wants to make sure that iOS users aren’t left out in the cold, and have found a rather novel way to use Siri shortcuts to make it possible to summon the Google Assistant on Apple handsets: by using the rather cumbersome “Hey Siri, Okay Google” waking command.
Siri shortcuts were designed to make it easy for iOS users to record customer phrases that then trigger Siri to launch specific apps like text messaging, music or map directions. According to super users, one can also use the shortcuts feature to chain a series of complicated actions together.
As of the last update to Google Assistant, iOS supports Siri shortcuts, which means upon downloading the Google Assistant app, iPhone users can then set up a shortcut that uses the phrase “Okay Google” to cue Siri to launch an alternative voice assistant.
Those who have tested the new function note that it is interesting – and amusing – but not quite a satin-smooth experience. Users must unlock their phones to get Siri to open the app, even with the voice command. Moreover, many described the walk-around as “cumbersome,” and something that may not get much in the way of customer use.
Unless, reviewers noted, that customer is already habituated to talking with the Google Assistant in the context of their home, in which case even iOS users are being given increasing reason to keep that single stream of conversation going.
Tying the Ecosystem Together More Tightly
A little more than a week before the Thanksgiving weekend sales rush and the announcement that Google Assistant is coming to iOS, Google rolled out a series of new features for both Assistant and Google Home products.
Google expanded the “broadcast” feature, which allows any device with Google Assistant on it to send out a message to every speaker in its shared network. The new iteration allows users who receive a broadcast to send a reply, which is sent back to the original broadcaster both as a voice message and as a transcribed text message. The broadcaster can send a further reply if necessary. Google’s suggested use case is broadcasting messages to one’s family from the grocery store to take suggestions on necessary items.
Google also announced it will now be “contextually” offering recipe suggestions on the Google Home Hub. Among elements of context it will consider are time of day, season and its user's personal search history. Users will also be able to save recipes in a cookbook that gets synced across devices (if those recipes are freely available on the web; recipes from subscription sources will be available at an unspecified later time).
Various reviewers who took Google’s smart home tour in early November noted that the updates, when viewed separately, appeared as little tweaks – but taken collectively, they began to outline a picture of Google’s planned direction for a voice-activated ecosystem.
“What I saw yesterday was the beginning of an ecosystem that works better if you use more than one Google device. Instead of just trying to get you to buy a Home Mini over an Echo Dot, Google is trying to present a more elegant, integrated idea of how its products work,” noted The Verge’s review. "For maybe the first time, I’m beginning to see how Google has a path to build a 'multiplier effect' ecosystem, one where each new Google product you adopt makes the other Google products you own more valuable.”
Most reviewers noted that it is mostly a start – and that Google’s advances, while interesting, likely won’t unseat Amazon or Alexa as the dominant player in the voice-enabled assistant market as of yet. The upgrades might keep a current Google Home owner loyal – or even push an undecided consumer toward a purchase – but they likely won’t change the mind of any Alexa users.
But this holiday season, recruiting new users is perhaps the name of the game – and as Canalys’ Analyst Ben Stanton told Forbes earlier this year, Google may have some advantages of its own when pushing into the market, particularly as commerce becomes an increasingly typical use for voice-activated assistants.
“[Google’s] biggest advantage is in the channel. Operators and retailers tend to prioritize Google’s speakers over those from Amazon, as Amazon is in the tricky position of being a direct competitor.”
Amazon notably is greatly helped by being the nation’s largest eCommerce player and home to around half of all sales on the internet annually. It is a massive channel all on its own, and many of its direct competitors also sell products in its marketplace.
Amazon also started as a place for consumers to buy things: a commerce platform. Google’s roots are as an ad-supported place to find information, including where to buy things. Amazon has slowly usurped that once-vaunted pole position, as more and more consumers are starting more and more of their product searches there, given the convenience of easy checkout and free shipping. And Alexa is just a voice command away.
But if you ask Google Assistant, this holiday season the advantage lies with Google, with ambitions of beating 2017 results dancing in their heads. It’s a bold hope, considering the firm claims to have sold more than one Google Home “every second” between Oct. 19 and Jan. 1 (which amounts to 6.5 million seconds) in 2017. Voice is increasingly regarded by Google as the glue between the consumer and her commerce pursuits.
As for Alexa, her polite reply might be more like "catch me if you can."