Last month, hype about the iPhone X—the phone’s latest reboot and first major advancement in several years—reached a fever pitch, but if you’re looking at this latest iPhone as the bellwether of what’s coming in the new era of personal technology, you’re looking in the wrong place. The next era of technology will be shaped by artificial intelligence and voice-controlled personal assistants.
When the first iPhone came out or, really, when the App Store followed a little while later, it was ushering in a new era of personal technology. Up until that point, the reasons that people had for using a phone or even the “smart” phones of the time were pretty limited. But as iPhones and other smartphones became handheld computers, they pioneered mobile shopping, advertising, payments and gaming, and an app-based economy.
In terms of innovation, however, smartphones have reached maturity. Now, AI voice-controlled assistants such as Amazon’s Alexa and Google Assistant are disrupting things again. Although voice assistants are in a nascent stage right now, they’re in a similar early growth trajectory that was seen with smartphones and apps.
iPhone’s Siri may have been the first voice assistant, but it has since been leapfrogged by Google and Amazon in terms of capabilities. We heard next to nothing about Siri at the latest iPhone unveiling, apart from new male and female voices. In terms of what Siri can do and how tightly she can integrate into your life, Apple is playing catchup. Rather than watching Apple, forward-thinking companies that are trying to figure out what comes next in the world of personal technology should keep an eye on what Google is doing with Google Assistant, and what Amazon is doing with Alexa, including a savvy partnership with Cortana, Microsoft’s voice assistant, which will allow people to access Cortana using Alexa, and vice versa.
Similar to what came from the growth of mobile shopping and advertising, “voice shopping” will be the new frontier. All of the major tech companies are in a land grab to establish themselves before this becomes commonplace. In some ways, Amazon’s Alexa is most well-suited to this given the obvious commerce tie-in to Amazon, but Google is likely better suited to activate voice as a replacement for text-based search. Google also just partnered with Walmart to push shopping inventory and have the same capabilities that Amazon has with Alexa, with shoppers having the capability to order products from Walmart through Google Assistant.
Just like when companies had to figure out what it meant to have an iPhone app in terms of capabilities and customer interaction, they’ll now have to figure out how to have a presence on and integration with voice assistants. We’re in the early stages, but some companies already are experimenting: For instance, you can now order a Domino’s pizza via Alexa. These early examples will seem gimmicky at first—the same way that iPhone apps did—but are a precursor to a more mature, intuitive way of engaging with consumers.
This year, according to eMarketer, 35.6 million Americans will use a voice assistant at least once a month—a 128% jump over 2016. Five years from now, voice assistants are going to seem like an obvious way that we interact with technology, so companies should get out ahead of that. The platforms that the high-tech industry has grown accustomed to will be changing. As voice assistants become pervasive, customers will expect to be able to interact via their voice assistants, much like they now expect to be able to interact via apps. If you’re not present in the places and on the platforms where your customers spend their time, then they eventually will forget about you.
Think about the possibilities of having a voice-activated store—before your competitors have one—and ground it in something that addresses a real consumer need. Even if it seems gimmicky to order an Uber or a pizza via Alexa, there’s something to be said for the ease of doing those things, and having a relatively quick, easy, fast experience.
How you experiment with voice assistants depends on what type of interaction you’re trying to facilitate. Do you want your customers to be able to place orders? Access their account in some way? Gather information from your products (such as diagnostics), or control the product or service with their voice rather than their hands? Take cues from the features and capabilities that are built into your app and figure out how voice technology can be worked into them.
Now’s an important time to learn and experiment to figure out how consumers are engaging with this new technology so that you can build toward a logical, intuitive way of engaging them when voice assistants start to become more pervasive. Forward-thinking companies are already doing so, and they’ll have a leg up on the laggards when this technology really starts to achieve scale.