The Top 10 Voice Industry Stories of 2018

The top story in the voice industry in 2018 according to Voicebot readers was Google Duplex. This story started in May, created a mini-controversies about AI courtesy and two-party consent for recording calls, and then was slowly introduced to consumers in announcements throughout the fall before a limited, four-city rollout in November. It was the story that every voice industry professional wanted to talk about and caught the interest even of those outside the industry (I had a hotel desk clerk ask me about it). Heidi Culbertson, CEO of AskMarvee commented:

Google Duplex opened every one’s eyes to expand thinking about the possibilities in a voice-first world.

Why is Google Duplex such a big deal? It showed that voice assistants can do something on your behalf out in the world, even when you are not present. Setting hair salon appointments and restaurant reservations may seem fairly mundane. However, these use cases are instructive about what voice assistants can become: an agent that helps us complete tasks proactively and even account for real-world variables. Voice assistants certainly had already proven helpful in fulfilling reactive requests such as controlling smart home devices, responding to information queries, and accessing entertainment. Google Duplex showed us all that making a restaurant reservation could be as easy as asking Google Assistant to turn on the lights.

The Top 10

The Top 10 stories of the year include four from the first half, five from the second half and one that took shape over the entire year. You would expect more recency bias for news that happened over the past couple of months, but important news in the first half of the year was still top of mind among survey participants. Google Duplex racked up a composite score of 3.78 out of a possible 5.0. That was a full point higher than the median for the top 25 stories of 2.77 and well ahead of second place. Stories ranking 2-5 had composite scores of 3.59, 3.51, 3.28, and 3.21 respectively. By contrast, the lowest scoring news item tested, Facebook Portal’s launch, scored 2.15 and was well behind the next closest topic. Here are the top 10 stories in order:

  1. Google Duplex (May)
  2. 75 Million Smart Speakers Sold Worldwide in 2018 (November)
  3. Amazon Alexa Passes 10,000 Employees (November)
  4. Google Assistant Commits to 30 Language Localizations (February)
  5. Amazon’s Alexa Chip for Appliances (September)
  6. Amazon Announced 12 New Products (September)
  7. Alexa and Google Assistant Duopoly Takes Shape (Throughout the Year)
  8. China Leaps to Nearly 30% of Global Smart Speaker Sales (November)
  9. Alexa Introduces CanFulfillIntentRequest for Voice SEO (May)
  10. Google Home Beats Amazon Echo in Q1 Sales (May)

Pat Higbie of XAPPmedia threw his votes for top story of 2018 behind the emerging voice assistant duopoly saying: “A duopoly crystalized between Amazon Alexa and Google Assistant to the point where consumers are using both assistants at scale and brands need to address both assistants in their voice AI strategies.”

Co-founder and CEO of Jargon, Milkana Brace, saw two Amazon announcements as most impactful: “There are two events that stand out for me. The first was Amazon’s announcement in September of a number of Alexa-enabled devices…The announcement of a wide range of voice-enabled smart devices is fueling our collective imagination for how humans will fundamentally change the way we interact with technology…The second news is that Amazon stated that it has over 10,000 employees working on Alexa. This level of investment is staggering and signals that we are to see a lot more progress in Alexa in 2019 and beyond. CEO Niko Vuori was right in line with industry sentiment saying:

The biggest story for me continues to be the juggernaut that is the Smart Speaker category (Amazon and Google in particular), and the sheer volume of units they shipped into homes during the year. The most memorable (though perhaps not most important) news was Google’s demo at I/O in May 2018 of their assistant successfully and convincingly booking an appointment at a hair salon.

I argued recently in Voice Insider that some combination of the stories of smart speaker worldwide sales (#2) and language localization (#4) was a bigger story than Google Duplex. The rationale is simple. Duplex was important because it showed us what voice assistants can become. The proliferation of smart speakers introduced more people to regular voice assistant usage and created the circumstances where voice interaction with technology can emerge as a daily habit. That habit formation is critical for services like Google Duplex to achieve widespread adoption over time. In addition, all of the great technology platforms of the past two decades have been global phenomena. Worldwide smart speaker sales are serving as the kindling for a voice assistant adoption bonfire that will be raging worldwide by 2020.

5 Stories That Didn’t Impress Voice Industry Pros

There were several stories that gained substantial media attention at the time but fell flat with voice industry pros. The most notable of these was the Facebook Portal launch. It came in dead last of all of the stories we asked readers to evaluate. Another was the much delayed Apple HomePod launch in February. It is not clear to me whether people just aren’t interested in this device or because it happened way back in February HomePod seemed like old news. However, I have to disagree with the readers on this one. Apple may not have gained much market share, but it is generating a tremendous amount of revenue due to HomePod’s high price point and the company has a large user base that may eventually move en masse to the devices.

Other stories that failed to generate excitement from Voicebot readers were the Samsung Bixby 2.0 launch, Skype arriving on Alexa, and the launch of various Google Assistant-enabled smart displays. Each of these may turn out to be very significant in the industry, but it is fair to conclude that their importance remains uncertain. For now, Voicebot readers are skeptical. Despite the industry sentiment, Todd Mozer of Sensory weighed in saying both HomePod and Bixby were, in fact, a big deal that shouldn’t be overlooked:

Apple releasing the Homepod and Samsung bringing Bixby to the forefront of their developers conference [were the biggest stories]. These were both statements from two of the largest and most influential mobile phone companies that they are still in the voice assistant game, and are not willing to secede to Amazon and Google.

News That Voicebot Had First

There was a lot of voice-related news in 2018 and Voicebot was first with a number of the stories. We can’t list them all, but here are some that made the top 100 most read stories of the year:

A Look Ahead to 2019

When considering news that will break in 2019, the biggest story is likely to be the rising adoption of voice assistants beyond smart speakers. Voice assistants are already used today more frequently on smartphones and in cars and that is likely to drive increased attention to these surfaces in the coming year.

Voice commerce and advertising will also become a bigger topic of conversation. There is now a substantial installed base of voice assistant users and voice apps. The next logical step is to focus on monetization. It was more talk than action in 2018 but will become an important focus in 2019. Advertising will be particularly controversial as it always manages to be. With that said, consumers are accustomed to the advertising trade-off for free capabilities and will largely accept the transaction while the media stories rage that they won’t.

Privacy and security will become more common discussion points but will have limited impact on voice assistant adoption. Of course, there will be privacy and security incidents that will cause consumers to follow their well-established pattern of worrying publicly and then largely ignoring the risks, hoping for the best, and enjoying the fruits of added convenience. What do you think will be the big stories of 2019? Let me know on Twitter.


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