How Amazon Echo and Google Home Are Leading the Charge in Voice Technology

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By Gregory Raiz

Voice technology is the new frontier for user interaction, and if your business cares about software, technology or Google, you'll likely end up caring about it. Both Amazon and Google are going to invest heavily in voice technology, but Google in particular is looking to start a developer and customer engagement shift.

As CEO of an innovation and technology company, I spend my time investigating new technology trends and helping companies build products to take advantage of these trends. Voice is growing fast, and paired with advances in artificial intelligence, we're about to see a change in the landscape.

The Rise of Voice Technology

Over the last decade, we've seen a shift toward increasingly simpler software interfaces. Mobile apps aren't just about mobility; they are also about ease-of-use and simplicity. In going mobile, many applications have simplified the user experience in addition to changing the form factor. That simplicity shift is poised to continue with voice.

As humans, we use our voice to communicate. When you walk into a restaurant you can order a "large burger and drink," the interaction is fluid and progressively disclosed. If the server asks,"Do you want fries with that?" you can answer, "Yes please, and hold the pickles." The interaction is simple on the surface, but nuanced and complex from a language and interface perspective. 

The above interaction is a natural user interface and works with little instruction, unlike most software today that involves navigation, carts and interface elements. Voice is going to remove the barriers to usability: Rather than finding the interface elements, users will declare what they want. Traditional interfaces aren't going away, but they will become enhanced with intent based interfaces and speech.

The Prevalence of Amazon Echo and Google Home

Amazon has been at it for a couple of years with the Echo and has an undisputed hit on its hands. Consumers have bought millions of devices, and the early majority is now starting to notice. To date, Echo apps have been novel. People are discovering the Echo's voice app store as well as the interactions, limitations and mechanics of voice, context and language.

From a business standpoint, the Echo is a fantastic test bed. Companies building Echo apps today are giving themselves a head start on voice interactions, which most commonly translates to API and infrastructure capabilities to catalog and route requests correctly. Here are just a few examples of this in practice:
  • Banks are exploring how to offer account details securely via voice;
  • Delivery services are uncovering how to disambiguate address information;
  • Hotels are figuring out how to route requests to concierge desks.

Fundamentally, these are infrastructure investments that place two bets: The first being that the price point of voice-activated devices will continue to drop. Originally introduced at the $179 price point, new Echo devices are now selling for $49. That's a 70 percent price drop in 18 months. The Echo software can run on a $5 Raspberry Pie chip, and makers could enable this to drop another 60-70 percent, to the $20 range. 

The second bet is that investments in voice infrastructure will help other aspects of the business beyond Echo. To make this leap, you have to consider a few things that are converging from a technology standpoint:
  • Customer service is getting automated;
  • "OK Google" and Siri will become more powerful year over year. Even if you don't care about Echo today, your business likely cares about mobile;
  • Voice is overlapped with chat infrastructure. Back-and-forth text replies are the millennial version of dialing 411;
  • Businesses that can instantly answer natural language intents will get used more frequently, with lower costs.

The expression used to be that information is at your fingertips. Now, enterprise knowledge and information can be on the tip of your tongue.

Why Google Matters to Voice

Amazon's core strength as a company has always been e-commerce and web infrastructure. From this perspective, it's very well positioned to solve and build many audio, video and e-commerce solutions. In fact, these are currently the things that the Echo is strongest at doing.

Google's core company strength, on the other hand, is answering questions. It's been doing it for far longer than Amazon has. Voice and speech recognition is also something that Google has been spending a decade improving. Amazon has a two-year jump start on the product, voice apps and hardware; however, artificial intelligence and answering various and abstract questions are the things that Google has historically been much better at doing.

I expect it'll take Google one or two years to catch up on hardware and apps, but it'll take Amazon a decade to get to similar levels of AI.

How to Take Advantage of Voice

The best applications and interfaces support existing behavior that is repeatable. "What's the weather?" is a good consumer example. Consider what questions are often asked within your business: "Who is running the next shift?" "What is our unit forecast for next month?" "Has anyone seen Sarah?" "Is this conference room available?" etc. Most larger businesses have external facing tools and customer support centers that often answer questions like these.

Consider your customer and internal needs as language requests. What are the most frequent and what are the most common ones?

The Progression of UI

The natural progression of interfaces is about to be more invisible and more intuitive. We're not living with Star Wars' C-3PO or Star Treks' Data, but the dream that we can ask a computer to do something -- and it just does it -- is a becoming a present day reality.

Gregory Raiz is the CEO of Raizlabs, a design and technology company with offices in Boston, MA and Oakland, CA. The company has a vision of improving lives through technology and design. Companies interested in mobile, voice, AI and web apps can learn more at www.raizlabs.com