Voice Control Wars: So Much More than a Cylindrical Device

by Stuart Sikes | Dec. 12, 2016

Descriptions of Microsoft’s upcoming Home Hub are surfacing, joining the debate over which voice control hub to buy—Amazon Echo or Google Home. Microsoft’s version, however, won’t be delivered in the form of a coffee table or bookshelf cylinder. It will be delivered as a feature of Windows 10, running on a PC or Surface tablet.

The fact that Microsoft is delivering its product in the form of software suggests that it be accelerating this evolution of device interfaces to PCs, making voice the next mouse. It suggests that the good people of Redmond seek to maintain their strangle hold on PCs and computing devices, given that Google and Apple already dominate voice control on smartphones and  Amazon has an early but significant lead in consumer electronics devices. It would be, after all, quite a strategic loss for Microsoft if Apple, Google, or Amazon became the leading provider of voice control on Windows devices.

The race to voice control has broad and exciting implications for the entire technology experience. The ability to control devices without touching them invites computing devices into many locations, tasks, and roles not previously imagined. Consider use cases in places like the shower, the kitchen, the laundry room, pool, and, of course, the car, where the use of hands is limited. The path from a dozen intelligent devices in the home to dozens of dozens is much clearer.

Headless (without monitor) and button-less devices that link to the power of the cloud can be reduced to a tiny processor, radio and battery—making smart devices even cheaper and smaller. Voice controlled lighting, locks, thermostats, or voice enabled products to assist arthritic or impaired users become economically viable.

Growth of many current smart home products is challenged by murky use cases as many products appear to leverage technology for the sake of showcasing technology, not addressing real consumer needs. Voice control, however, is already addressing real household needs, both large and small. In my home, voice control has resolved the confusion over which TV remote is the right one for the right task. Use cases are growing by the week.

The implications of widespread voice control are significant. A few include: the potential explosion of numbers of intelligent devices that we use every day, the amount of personal data that we are generating with use of each connected device, and the possibility that a single set of voice commands can be used to control devices as disparate as a car, a music player, an oven, or a computer. Perhaps the biggest implication is that voice control creates a new technology power play. The vendor that drives the voice standard across many devices and many industries controls access to those very industries, charging a "toll" or directing users to their own cloud, search engine, operating system, or online store. The arrival of voice control signals the latest wave of technology innovation and evolution that will wash over most all devices we own and use.

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