Language is in many ways what makes us human. Other species seem to get by alright without it, but for us, language is essential for thought, communication, community and culture. So, it’s no surprise that voice technology has become as popular as it is. In many ways, it is the natural next step to facilitate human-machine interaction. It’s something as fundamental as touch was — but with a much greater communicative potential.
In the few years since the first voice-enabled devices hit the market, consumer demand has grown tremendously. (Not to sound like a broken record, but Amazon’s Echo was sold out for a month solid following a holiday shopping frenzy.) And new data shows that this could just be the beginning.
A recent state-of-the-industry report from VoiceLabs, the analytics company for Amazon Alexa and Google Home developers, projected that, by the end of 2017, the total device footprint of voice-activated devices will reach 33 million. That’s an enormous increase compared to past data — from the 1.7 million shipped in 2015 and the 6.5 million shipped in 2016.
In other words, VoiceLabs projects 24.5 million new voice-enabled devices will be shipped in 2017. These projections include consideration of increased consumer interest in voice, as well as new players adding voice-enabled tech to their repertoire.
While Amazon currently dominates with an estimated 7 million Amazon Echo devices in consumers’ homes and Google is getting started, others are soon likely to follow. VoiceLabs predicts that Apple, Samsung and Microsoft may also introduce voice-enabled hardware in 2017.
Despite the major year-on-year increases in device shipments, the data shows that there’s already some rot underlying the voice ecosystem.
Namely, “zombie skills.”
The problem is especially apparent in Amazon’s corner at the moment, since Alexa has grown since her start to perform over 7,000 discrete skills. Alexa saw a 500 percent growth in skills in the second half of 2016 alone — but that doesn’t mean consumers are using all of them.
Far from it, in fact, as consumers have largely been drawn to a small segment of use cases. News, games and trivia, reference, lifestyle and weather skills comprise the majority share. VoiceLabs found that only 31 percent of Alexa’s skills have more than one consumer review, indicating low consumer interest and use.
A survey of Echo and Google Home users indicated further that 46.7 percent of owners use the devices to play music and eBooks; controlling smart home devices and games and entertainment each took 29.1 percent; and news took an additional 26.5 percent. This left everything else with some 3.8 percent of use cases. Aside from a few outlier skills, it turns out that, when a voice application acquires a user, there is only a 3 percent likelihood that the user will remain active in the second week.
Part of the problem may be that the technology is new enough that users haven’t yet figured out exactly what voice-enabled devices can do or what exactly they want from them. And with 7,000+ features and counting, it might take a while to play catch-up. Likewise, developers seem to be entering the space with a more-is-more mentality, throwing anything against the digital wall to see what sticks in the new voice ecosystem. Well, almost anything.
What is a bit incongruous in all of this is the lack of applications that facilitate person-to-person communication. Who knows if consumers will bite, but it does seem odd that no one has built an application that allows users to communicate with other users given this is a technology that leverages a primary mode of communication.
This is likely to change in the coming year, as VoiceLabs predicts at least one or more of the platforms will enable direct person-to-person communication — whether by voice-to-voice (hand-radio style), in voice messages, voice to text or some other functionality is yet to be seen.
Person-to-person communication is just one of the many innovations 2017 could see for voice-enabled devices, with monetization being another major one. As of now, no application on a voice-enabled device has successfully monetized. But again, monetization seems inevitable in the voice ecosystem.
As 2017 progresses, expect big things from the voice-enabled ecosystem. It is quickly becoming mainstream, so the challenge now is for industry leaders and developers to adapt to when, where and how consumers want to use their voice.