Internet-connected intelligent gizmos had a big showing at this year's Consumer Electronics Show, and there is one common thread between many of them: Amazon’s Alexa virtual assistant.
Lenovo has a new speaker featuring the assistant. Volkswagen and Ford are building Alexa into their cars. Plus, there’s a whole flotilla of other connected devices featuring Alexa, including a high-tech refrigerator from LG.
That’s not to say other virtual assistants aren’t doing the same thing, but Amazon is the clear winner by volume at CES.
So, what does that mean for the virtual assistant market, which includes competitors such as Microsoft's Cortana, the Google Assistant and Apple's Siri?
Those companies need to start doing the same things Amazon has done, Gartner Research Director Werner Goertz said.
There's still room to compete, in part because Amazon’s dominance doesn’t extend beyond the connected home, Goertz said in an interview.
“But, the longer the other guys wait -- specifically, the longer Cortana and Siri wait -- the more insurmountable this obstacle is going to become,” he said.
One of Alexa's key advantages is that Amazon released the software development kits to create Alexa-integrated hardware in the middle of last year. That gave device manufacturers plenty of time to build their products in time for an announcement at CES.
Some of Amazon’s competitors took different approaches. Microsoft and Google each announced integration tools for their assistants later in the year and have kept third-party integrations available to consumers limited to a small number of partners.
Amazon's early move helped it land the deal with Volkswagen, for example. A representative for the carmaker at its booth at CES called out Amazon’s early move with SDKs as a key reason for implementing it instead of something like the Google Assistant.
Another reason Amazon may have such a lead is that the Echo can serve as a smart-home hub without requiring gadget manufacturers to work directly with one another.
From Microsoft’s perspective, Amazon’s lead in numbers is at least somewhat by design. Ryan Gavin, the general manager for search and Cortana, said in an interview that the company doesn’t see this as a race to get the most integrations. Instead, Microsoft wants to promote integrations that fit Cortana's mission of improving productivity.
But that’s almost what you’d expect the company to say, considering that Amazon is far ahead of them with the number of connected devices available for its assistant.
Google could have been in Amazon's position but got lost in the weeds with Nest, the smart-home hardware company it acquired in 2014, said Patrick Moorhead, the president and principal analyst for Moor Insights and Strategy.
“Microsoft had more important things to work out, like other AI implementations,” he said in an email. “Cortana is world class, but doesn't have a smart-home ecosystem to control. That is changing, of course.”
It’s worth noting that Amazon still has a long way to go when it comes to attracting users of Alexa. The Echo is only available in the U.S., which is an incredibly small user base compared with the 37 countries where Siri is available.
That’s not to say Amazon won’t be expanding its virtual assistant's horizons, but just that its worldwide dominance is not assured. And it will have no shortage of competitors. LG and Sony each showed off their own virtual assistants at CES, while Microsoft and Google are hardly standing still.
For example, Moorhead expects Microsoft and Google to take the lead in making virtual assistants for PCs, smartphones and tablets.
It will be interesting to see how these virtual-assistant ecosystems shake out. Right now, each player has its own home base: Siri on the iPhone, Cortana on the PC, Google on its hardware and Alexa on the Echo. Over the next few years, it seems likely that they’ll try to cement their presence on other platforms.