Lately, I've been thinking about the rapidly emerging voice technologies, a subset of artificial intelligence and machine learning. Most of the big technology companies now offer a voice assistant through a mobile phone or smart speaker such as Amazon with Alexa, Apple with Siri, Microsoft with Cortana, etc. Forecasts predict that 50% of all searches done online will be through voice by 2020 (driven by mobile), with an estimated 13% of US households owning a smart speaker today.
My take is that voice is another interface, not a platform in and of itself or a new paradigm in computing. Voice is inherently a low bandwidth medium making it strong for certain types of activities, specifically giving commands and getting information to basic questions. “Alexa play music” or “Google what is the weather going to be today?”. This is borne out by the plethora of studies being released lately examining how consumers use voice technologies. The most common uses of voice today by far are asking for directions, asking a quick question, calling someone, checking time, or playing music.
I expect to see the voice interface dominate when it comes to certain use cases such as home automation but I suspect it’s overhyped for a lot of other common digital use cases. A big one in this bucket would be online shopping. Humans are inherently visual creatures and the ability to see a product and read about it will trump being able to purchase purely through a voice dialog. The only exception to this would be repeat purchases of the same product or if it’s a really basic item that you are agnostic to its brand (“Alexa, order me a stapler”). Obviously, Amazon disagrees with me having stated it has over 5,000 employees currently working on Alexa and Echo technologies but I remain bearish on voice for eCommerce.
In terms of search, due to its low bandwidth I doubt voice will be very useful for discovery in general or for new customer acquisition by brands and advertisers. It’s just not a good interface for comparison or discovery. That of course won’t stop Google and Amazon from offering a new type of ad unit in the very near future where you can pay these companies to be a featured product in a voice search.
Noted technology pundit Scott Galloway for the last year has been predicting the death of brands due to voice but I have to disagree with him here and think he is greatly exaggerating the impact this technology will have. Voice will simply becoming one of several interfaces users have access to as it seeps into common usage, but it certainly won’t replace touch, keyboards, etc.