The Question of Walled Gardens and Voice Assistants
A Venture Beat article posed the question, “Is the connected home possible without a walled garden?” This is an important question even though some of the analysis has flaws. Contrary to the commentary, Apple does not have a very strong strategy, does not have a far-field microphone solution and is falling behind quickly in terms of partner ecosystem support. And, there are clearly more players than just Apple, Google and Amazon.
The article is correct that Apple appears to be following a classic wall-garden approach as it normally does with other product lines. She also correctly suggested that Amazon is taking an open network approach even though it does have both hardware and software. Google appears to be somewhere in between. The walled-garden strategy is typically defined as controlling the entire stack of hardware and software. Amazon and Google are both encouraging other hardware manufacturers to adopt their AI-driven voice assistant software. Amazon’s Alexa has a head start, but Google has a successful history to replicate based on Android.
Is a Walled-Garden a Good Strategy for Voice Assistants or Connected Home?
It is a different question to ask whether a walled-garden can work for a voice assistant or the connected home. It can work for a voice assistant because you don’t need that many devices. A smartphone-based assistant could work for many people. Combine that with a home-based solution with hands-free far field microphone such as Google Home or Amazon Echo and you will cover most situations.
However, for the connected home, no single vendor could hope to cover all of the needed hardware under their own brand. They could only enable connectivity and control over those smart home devices. Even Apple is not trying to create every device for home automation. With that said, Apple and Google are competing directly with third party manufacturers by developing devices for some home automation categories. Amazon appears content to just provide the Echo as a gateway to home automation solutions provided by third parties and is encouraging widespread use of Alexa by device manufacturers.
The smartphone market grew up around walled-garden created by Apple. The voice assistant market may benefit from the full-stack control of a walled garden, but the connected home almost certainly will bias toward openness.
Can Amazon Compete in Voice Assistant Space Without a Smartphone Footprint?
Amazon has a solid strategy for the connected home. The real question is whether it can compete long-term as voice assistants become commonplace. Amazon has mobile devices with the Fire Tablets and Kindles but these aren’t always with you and as integrated into your life to the same degree as a smartphone. Google’s introduction of Google Home made of point of showing deep integration with its new Pixel phone. The theory is that the same assistant that helps you throughout the day can carry that context over to your home-based assistant. Apple’s Siri is likely to follow a similar strategy. Deep integration with calendar, messaging and email is another set of advantages that come with the Android and iOS ecosystems.
Alexa doesn’t have these advantages. However, it has benefited from not having to consider the smartphone at all. That has allowed Amazon to focus solely on the home-based assistant concept and optimize for it exclusively. That focus is paying off with a rapidly growing user base and positive consumer reviews.
Voicebot forecasts that Amazon still has a lot of runway before smartphone-based voice assistant use becomes truly pervasive in people’s lives. During that time, Alexa may well establish a durable relationship with users. The Alexa integration by device partners may also make the solution sticky enough to fend off the Android and iOS voice assistant competition. Ironically, it may be the introduction of voice-based AI on Alexa that causes consumers to explore the wide variety of benefits that can come from using their Siri and Google assistants more frequently. This may also test the assumption that people will opt for a single assistant instead of multiple assistants optimized for different tasks.