One of the most exciting topics at this year's Consumer Electronics Show was voice assistants. Amazon and Google are competing head-to-head in this space, with Samsung beginning to roll out Bixby to more devices. Amazon is well in the lead with well over 40M Echo sales to date according to Parks Associates' estimates, but Google's efforts in conversational AI and deep integration with search is helping to make Google Home a compelling value proposition.
More third-parties are pledging support to Amazon's Alexa ecosystem - in addition to a wide new swath of gadgets and cars, Alexa is coming to select Windows PCs via partnerships with OEMs. This is not part of the planned integration between Alexa and Cortana, which was supposed to happen back in December. This is bad news for Cortana - will it become the next Microsoft consumer product to be phased out? Amazon is also working on improving its skills discoverability and engagement - with over 25K skills and games available, finding new ones is more than a bit of a challenge. The experience is still much better than Google Home, where enabling a new Action requires users to go into another app.
However, Google is making a major effort with its Google Assistant ecosystem. It's launching new smart displays with OEM partners Lenovo, JBL, LG and Sony, and also integrating Assistant into Android Auto. While some of them are a bit odd-looking, they offer extra functionality like making video calls, watching YouTube videos, checking maps, and looking at photos. Google's smart display lineup isn't quite as functional as Amazon's Echo Show, but they come in many more form factors and price points than Amazon's offering so there's something for everyone. These devices are expected to launch in the summer.
In addition to its new smart displays, Google also announced that it's (finally) making Google Assistant the default on Android Auto. This allows consumers to access new Google Assistant features, such as smart home control and integration with Assistant's third-party Actions. This integration also allows users to use other devices to ask about their car's fuel status or lock doors - that is, as long as they own a supported vehicle from Mercedes-Benz, Hyundai, or Kia.
There's been a lot of excitement around digital assistants at CES, mainly around the two main voice assistant ecosystems. Samsung is integrating Bixby into more of its own products, including its new Samsung Family Hub refrigerator. Meanwhile, we've heard little about Cortana and nary a peep from Apple.
Qualcomm's also announced its new low-power Bluetooth chipset, which will help enable a new generation of wearables and hearables specially designed for supporting voice assistants. Both Amazon and Google have fine-tuned their support for wearables with new development kits which provide customized support for ultra-low power devices such as headphones and smart watches. As competition heats up in the wearables space, voice assistant support may become the next big selling point.