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Digital assistants rule the show at CES 2019

Voice-activated digital assistants are the star attraction at this year’s CES.

Considering the attention being lavished on them this week in Las Vegas, one would think that Google Assistant and Amazon Alexa have the digital assistant market sewn up. But the competitive playing field is far more complex and dynamic than that.

As can be seen by the activity at CES 2019, Google indeed is on a roll. Buoyed by robust worldwide adoption of its Android operating system, the vendor reports that Google Assistant is on track to be preinstalled on 1 billion shipped devices by the end of this month. Meanwhile, recent research indicates that Apple Siri—which is on all iOS smartphones, tablet, and other gadgets—currently has an installed base of 500 million devices. For its part, Microsoft Cortana—which comes with Windows 10 and other platforms–is on more than 400 million devices. Furthermore, Samsung is projecting that its Bixby digital assistant will come preinstalled on around 500 million its Galaxy smartphones and other devices by next year.

All of this contrasts with Amazon Alexa’s current 100 million-device installed base, which is primarily in smart speakers for home automation. But these device counts tell only part of the story of digital assistant technology’s rise in ubiquity.

Amazon’s momentum in building an ecosystem of partners to embed, build apps and develop skills for Alexa is nothing short of astounding. According to Consumer Intelligence Research Partners’ estimates, Amazon Alexa dominates the smart speaker market with 73 percent of the market, while Google’s offerings have 24 percent.

More than 150 Amazon products — most notably the Echo smart speakers — and partner solutions currently come with Alexa built in. That includes more than 28,000 smart home devices made by more than 4,500 different manufacturers that have built more than 70,000 Alexa skills. Indeed, Amazon and its partners announced a slew of new Alexa-based products this week at CES, in addition to the more than 70 new products rolled out at an Alexa hardware showcase this past September.

All of that product launch activity far outpaces the ecosystem momentum racked up by Apple, Microsoft, Samsung and others in the digital assistant wars. Bear in mind, though, that the headroom for growth by a smart-speaker-focused provider such as Amazon is a bit more spacious than for those such as Google, Apple and Samsung whose voice-assistant adoption tracks with their presence in the smartphone wars. Smart speakers are far from saturation in the consumer market, with 32 percent of Americans currently owning one, according to Adobe and Pew Research, while 77 percent already have smartphones.

What all that shows is that Amazon’s Alexa Everywhere strategy, which it launched two years ago at CES, is beginning to pay off. The key to broad adoption of a digital assistant — outside the vendor’s own vertically integrated smart speaker, smartphone, tablet, laptop or other device platforms — lies in leveraging partnerships, developer tools and embedded integration for a wide range of mass-market use cases. Be that as it may, it’s not clear whether Amazon is gaining any significant partner or user traction for its Alexa for Business products, which are nowhere mentioned in any of its buzz at the consumer-oriented CES event.

Google says Assistant works with more than 1,600 brands and 10,000 devices. Recognizing that it needs to pick up the pace to maintain its leadership in the digital-assistant market as a whole, across a wide range of devices and use cases, Google announced a wide range of new partners, solutions and development tools for Assistant at CES 2019. These include the Google Assistant Connect voice-assistant development platform and as well as integration with various third-party speakercarTVcableautomotive and appliance devices.

Nevertheless, one would be mistaken to think that Google, Amazon or any of the other digital assistant makers is poised to dominate this market. One of the chief takeaways from this year’s CES is that many manufacturers of mobile, appliance, “internet of things” and other device-based solutions plan to support two or more digital assistants within their product portfolios. That’s because they’re all trying to address the largest possible market, in which many potential customers have already adopted two or more of the digital assistants on the market and wish to have it all work seamlessly within their increasingly gadget-crazy lives.

The market trend toward digital-assistant-agnostic gadget platforms provides a glimmer of hope for providers that haven’t achieved the ecosystem success enjoyed by Amazon and Google. For example, Apple Siri has up to now made a poor showingin the smart-home and smart-speaker segments. IBM’s Watson Assistant hasn’t broken out of the business-user segment.

In addition, Samsung’s two-year-old Bixby has yet to achieve more than a single-digit share of the smartphone voice assistant market. And Microsoft Cortana has lost momentum as an embedded assistant for Microsoft’s underperforming gadget products, which is why the software and cloud giant has recently been shifting toward integrating it with its Windows 10 PC partners’ new devices.

There’s an even larger theme that may pull the rug out from beneath all of these digital voice assistants going forward: automation. As I discussed here, improvements in the AI that powers these assistants may enable them to take the right actions proactively — perhaps by automatically driving physical robots to take effective action — while minimizing the need to chat with users, in an emerging paradigm that I call the “silent servant.”

Over time, the enabling AI will grow more predictively accurate, users’ trust in these bots will deepen, the technology will become more sensitive to our emotional state, and it will be built into every physical and virtual artifact in our lives. The most intelligent digital assistants of the future — and those that contribute most to “digital wellness” — may be those that don’t rely principally on voice or any other user inputs.

The best digital assistants of the future may be those that automate amazing results with little or no verbal spoon-feeding.

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