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The digital voice assistant is here to stay, but how disruptive is it likely to be?


Amazon's Echo Spot

  • 2018 proclaimed the year of the digital voice assistant
  • Analysts expect a surge this year
  • Owners say they use their smartphones less since their DVA purchase

It looks very much as though this is going to be the year, ready or not, of the ‘digital voice assistants’ - Alexa, Siri, Google Assistant, Cortana and more -  and the increasingly popular smart speakers which people are buying to give them voice.

Not only is the ‘DVA’ getting a pronounced push from vendors, convinced that it will prove stiff device competition for the venerable old smartphone, but consumer research seems to bear out that it’s also widely regarded as an easier way to get through to specific information or video content - consumers therefore want it.

Whether its rise will involve an industry-defining, make or break  struggle between the big vendors keen to hold onto their consumer attention share (as some analysts seem keen to promote), seems unlikely.

Yes it’s important and a lot of money is at stake, but let’s not get carried away. The voice assistant is surely more an adjunct to the smartphone and PC in the information or entertainment gathering role, not a replacement for them. For a year or two it may take revenue share, then after that it will take its place (alongside the tablet which was also presented as an existential threat to the smartphone in its time) as one of the important ways you interact with the Internet, depending on how well the concept is developed from this point.

Talking numbers

Like other analyst houses, IHS Markit is expecting a ‘surge’ this year as the assistants become more ubiquitous and spread themselves over more devices. It reckons more than 5 billion consumer devices supporting digital assistants will be in use in 2018 (nearly all smartphones, of course), and almost 3 billion more will be added by 2021.

But it points out that while there is an enthusiastic welcome by many consumers there are also barriers and many of those consumers will probably remain unconvinced.

Security is one problem. The idea of talking freely into a connected device which then talks back is not easy to feel comfortable with - not only might you worry about what the provider is doing with your info, but the very nature of the smart speaker means others might be listening to you also (ie in non-digital hearing distance).  More importantly IHS Markit points out that more needs to be done by all the platforms to help users discover new skills and uses for the technology.

As things stand, though, it maintains Amazon currently has a clear lead over rivals Google, Apple and Samsung in terms of the numbers of skills and third-party apps and services supported by its Echo products, says IHS Markit.

What do users think?

An online survey conducted in October and November 2017 by Accenture and Harris Interactive involved 21,000 people from 19 countries In the U.S. Accenture estimated 21 percent of the online population owns such a device today, and 37 per cent will own one by the end of 2018. In India, the figure will go from 14 percent of the online population today to 39 percent by the end of 2018.

But the key finding, according to Accenture, was that 66 per cent of the people who answered a question about owning a digital voice assistant and smartphone usage agreed with the statement: "Since I got my digital voice assistant device, I use my smartphone for fewer activities.” Within the ‘using smartphones less’ subgroup, 64 per cent said they use phones less frequently for entertainment services, while 58 percent said they do less online purchasing with their phones; and 56 percent do fewer searches from their phones.

“The smart speaker surge is only just beginning,” said Paul Erickson, senior analyst at IHS Markit. “2018 is the year competition in this market truly begins – and the year true mainstream adoption accelerates. We expect numerous third-party smart speakers built around one or more digital assistants, so consumers will have more choices when it comes to price, form factors, style, and audio quality.”

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