White and Tan English Bulldog Lying on Black Rug
Google and Amazon expect all new voice-enabled devices to enlist specialized services to assist with daily tasks. PHOTO: heather gunn

New voice-enabled devices have proven to be a breakout hit with consumers in 2016. For many, this opportunity represents a land grab as large and important as when Apple first opened the iOS App Store in 2008.

Google now processes roughly 40,000 search queries every second. This translates to more than 3.5 billion searches per day and 1.2 trillion searches per year worldwide.

ComScore predicts that by 2020, 50 percent of all searches will be voice searches. Google is the clear winner in search, but who will be the winner in voice?

Google, Amazon Lead

So far, Google and Amazon are racing for the title.

Earlier this year the New York Times dubbed Amazon the “accidental” early winner in the voice-controlled home. Amazon Echo beat Google Home to market by about two years, but the device won out by being first, not necessarily best.

Many reviewers are noticing that Google Home is “smarter” than Echo and has the ability to understand more complex questions. Unlike the Echo, Google Home can understand context for follow-up questions; it will answer correctly when an asker follows “what’s the weather” with “what about tomorrow,” for example. 

But Amazon Echo leads in range of function; its historically open relationship with developers has allowed it to amass over 3,000 skills. Google Home, on the other hand, only opened its SDK this month and its power to integrate with IoT devices and apps is still limited.

Strong Sales to Date

The investments Google and Amazon have made in voice-enabled technology are backed by strong sales figures across the board.

Amazon doesn’t release its sales numbers, but a November 2016 estimate by Consumer Intelligence Research Partners reports the company has sold more than 5.1 million Echo devices in the United States alone since its debut.

That’s comparable to the early iPhone sales figures, raising the question of whether voice-activated tech will grow to the same level of popularity as touchscreen devices.

Unsurprisingly, awareness of the Echo and devices like it continue to increase, jumping from 20 percent to 69 percent of Amazon users in the span of 16 months. The Echo has, in fact, sold out for the 2016 holiday season, and analysts predicted that 10 to 12 million virtual assistants would be sold by Christmas.  

In fact, On Dec. 27 Amazon reported "customers purchased and gifted a record-setting number of devices from the Amazon Echo family with sales up over 9x compared to last year’s holiday season and millions of Alexa devices sold worldwide this year."

Google Home is equally sold out in stores.

Increasingly Complex Questions, More Integration

Although the sales numbers show promise, the future of voice interfaces depends on the ability to answer increasingly complex questions and integrate with existing apps. 

Google and Amazon both believe that new voice-enabled devices will enlist a multitude of specialized services to assist with daily tasks. To order take out, one could simply say "OK Google. Ask Caviar to deliver Kung Pao Chicken from China Cafe."

To request a ride, say "Alexa. Ask Lyft for a ride to JFK airport."  Speaking in natural language is three to four times faster than typing, so the addition of voice to consumer devices could feel like a more natural extension than manual input.

Smarter and Smarter

The best-case scenario? A world where voice technology is more accurate than touch screens and buttons ever could be, accepting an unlimited number of inputs and getting smarter with each addition.  

It’s unclear yet who will dominate voice-controlled technology, but the company that does will create a multi-platform solution that integrates seamlessly with the devices and apps we already use, provided those apps have voice, too.

Google and Amazon are at the forefront, but Microsoft’s plans to open Cortana to third-party hardware will bring another player into the mix. We look forward to 2017, when we will hopefully embrace the full power of voice.