It’s easy to cite the arrival of the iPhone the moment the design of the modern smartphone solidified. In comparison, almost every device in the decade since feels more like a step than a leap forward.
Sure, Samsung’s Galaxy S8 might have promised to ‘Unbox Your Phone’ by shaving bezels entirely. However, it’s done little to tinker with the core of what the smartphone experience constitutes.
Voice assistants promise to make up that difference.
In fact, if you believe the hype, Bixby, Alexa and Google Assistant and the rest will do what even edgeless screens couldn’t and bring on an era of truly smarter smartphones.
What are voice assistants?
The definition for what qualifies as a voice assistant varies a bit depending on who you ask but the general gist of that a voice assistant (also called a virtual personal assistant or voice companion) is a software agent embedded within your smart devices that can act on your behalf. Of course, acting on your behalf is only half of what’s so compelling about voice assistants.
The other piece of the puzzle involves what is sometimes called artificial or accelerated intelligence. By leveraging all of the data caught up in your digital footprint, the idea is that your voice assistant can learn from your interests and behavior over the long term – even following you between devices.
Why are they such a big deal?
Aside from the surface-level science fiction-inspired tie to the notions artificial intelligence, investment into voice assistants will allow vendors to offer a key point of difference over competitors using software rather than hardware.
First, it learns how you work. Then, it adapts and helps you learn how to do what you do more efficiently. At the of the road, the idea is that you have a smartphone as smart as you are.
If you’ve ever seen the award-winning science fiction film Her, that’s basically a portrait for the compelling future that today’s technology is trying to bring to life.
How many voice assistants are there? Who are the big players in the market?
A lot. With more being announced by the month. Despite being first-to-market with Siri, Apple’s early lead with voice assistant tech has quickly been eclipsed by others.
In terms of raw market share, Amazon’s Alexa is the biggest – especially when it comes to the US market. Within the States, Alexa is said to have a 3-to-1 advantage over its closest rival: Google.
Alexa can allow you to play music, control your smart home, get information, news, weather, and more using just your voice. Unfortunately for Australians, Amazon have yet to launch Alexa overseas.
Fortunately for them, Google’s are also missing from the local market – at least when it comes to physical hardware. Initially rolled out with Android Nougat, Google Assistant has been available to Australian smartphone owners for some time. However
Alphabet’s voice assistant leverages the enormous amount of data collected by Google to assist you with everyday tasks. Recent testing by 360i rated Google’s voice assistant six times more accurate than Alexa when it came to questions.
At this early stage, the biggest point of difference between the two really might come down to your history with either company and their commercial applications. If you’ve a long history of buying products on Amazon, Alexa will likely be able to offer you a better experience than Google can. The reverse applies.
Previous comparisons between the two have also seen Alexa emerge the victor when it came to shopping online using your voice. However, Google has recently made strides in that area, closing the gap somewhat.
Behind these two market leaders, both Microsoft and Samsung are vying for the third place.
First introduced to Windows 10 users in 2014, Microsoft’s Cortana has quickly become integrated with Microsoft’s first-party applications like Edge and Skype. Cortana can carry out searches, set reminders and more. However, that compatibility does come with a few notable limitations that some have deemed ‘anticompetitive‘.
Cortana has been available to Australians for some time, assuming you have either Windows 10 or an Android-powered smartphone capable of installing the assistant.
Finally, there’s Bixby. Launched earlier this year with the Galaxy S8 smartphone, Samsung’s Bixby is designed to be an all-compassing voice assistant that enables a more personalized and intuitive smartphone experience by integrating itself wholly with the broader ecosystem of Samsung products.
Specifically, the inter-application functionality of Bixby is super-promising. Your phone might already be the centre of your life but now it really is the glue that ties all the smart-devices in your life together.
However, Samsung have already run into some early issues during rollout of the ambitious Bixby. They successfully launched Bixby in South Korea in May but the US-launch has been repeatedly pushed back amid reports that the voice assistant is struggling to understand English.
What about these speakers?
As voice assistants have become more advanced, companies have started rolling out integration between them, a voice assistant and other smart devices. The idea here is to eventually populate your “smart home” with devices that all connect to and communicate with one another and are capable of carrying out tasks.
Amazon’s Alexa works her way into your household via the Echo, Echo Dot and Look speakers.
There are also a number of third party companies who have begun providing Alexa-friendly speakers. Lenovo, for example, showed off their Alexa-ready speaker at this year’s CES.
Google Assistant comes accompanied by the unassumingly-named Google Home. Like Amazon’s Echo, it’s not available in Australia yet but reports say it’ll be here soon. Likely, around the same time – if not before – Amazon launches Echo and Alexa into the local market.
Samsung is said to be working on a speaker for Bixby while Microsoft recently unveiled their Invoke speaker. There’s little known about the former but plenty of info out there on the latter.
According to Microsoft, “Invoke brings together Harman Kardon’s audio heritage with Cortana by Microsoft, resulting in a beautifully designed speaker for the home. Crafted from premium materials, Invoke’s striking metallic speaker cabinet delivers power and projects sound at full 360-degrees, revealing every beautiful detail in your music.”
There’s no word yet on Australian availability or pricing, however. Harman has previously said that the speaker will roll out to customers towards the tail-end of 2017.