Alexa wins the Apple App Store as voice control takes over

Alexa's meteoric climb up the Apple App Store charts should be all the proof you need that the age of voice is here.

Apple, iOS, macOS, Siri, iPhone, App Store, Amazon, Alexa, Voice interfaces, computing
Leif Johnson

We are all spending more time talking to our computers. This is a changing interaction with machines. Amazon’s meteoric climb up the Apple App Store charts should be all the proof you need that the age of voice is here.

Hey Siri, speak to Alexa

While most of the tech press involved itself in writing endless Amazon Prime day buying lists, Brian Roemmele was watching what was happening in tech.

He realized that lots of the systems sold on Amazon over the last few days were spoken-word systems that work with Amazon’s Alexa app.

To get a sense of how many sold, he watched as App Store downloads of the Alexa app climbed the charts.

Just how far the app advanced is different in different nations, but where I am on an iPad the App Store shows me the Alexa app now sits at Number 16.

To put this into perspective, that’s two places behind the popular but reviled Facebook app and one ahead of the ever-so-widely-used Google Maps app.

You don’t need to be a smart assistant to figure out what’s happening here.

Not only does this suggest that tens of thousands of consumers purchased Alexa-enabled products across the last few days, but it also shows that spoken interactions with smart machines are becoming normalized.

We’re all doing it. We're all using Siri, Alexa, Cortana, and everyone else.

But, what about scale?

Amazon has a big advantage in terms of deployment.

The company has also thought wisely around voice.

The introduction of Alexa Skills means the assistant doesn’t necessarily need to be defined as a tool for shopping or content access (asking it to play a movie or a song), but can be extended for use in other domains.

That’s an advantage at this stage of voice/machine interaction, a moment defined by short requests.

However, as these interfaces scale, this early advantage may expire.

Why?

Because Amazon doesn’t really have a platform (yet).

It can make one, I suppose, but it would take a great deal of effort to empower a nation of developers to build a world of apps for tens of thousands of usage cases.

It would also require the development of a unique operating system, and those are hard to build. 

Take Photoshop: Enabling Photoshop for voice control on a Mac is something that has already happened, thanks to Apple’s Voice Control tech.

Voice Control is absolutely Apple’s Royal Flush in the voice/machine age.

Amazon can’t beat that without making a huge investment in technology, development and time, which means Alexa can’t scale.

But it can partner.

What about context?

The thing about spoken-word interfaces is that they are – on the surface – limited.

The commands you can utter are confined to simple decisions, “get this”, “what’s that”, “take a note”, “play a song”, “lights out”…

At least, that’s how it seems.

But this is not the case.

Because the machines are becoming smarter and more capable of contextual analysis.

This helps them predict what you want, understand what you mean, and then deliver a result to fit that context.

AI logarithms such as KNN, LVQ, SVM, and Random Forest mean machine intelligence is becoming more capable of making predictions based on multiple data inputs.

These are the kinds of technologies computers already use to detect spam mail or to figure out the difference between your favorite morning or evening auto-generated playlists.

This developing comprehension around contextual AI means technology inevitably gets better at fulfilling more complex requests by predicting what you need.

Even Siri is getting better at this. It's getting pretty good at it. Proactive?

Don’t bet against Apple here

Apple has multiple advantages around this.

It’s focus on privacy is extremely attractive to AI developers who now understand the magnitude of what they are building and the dangers of allowing AI to become a gatekeeper to dystopian visions.

Believe it or not, most AI developers just want to make the world a better place rather than take the golden coins while marching humanity to oblivion.

Apple also has the existing platform, millions of developers, a range of essential applications (both its own and those from third parties) and relevant hardware technologies – those A-series processors and their built-in neural chips are passports to mobile AI.

Apple’s processors are fundamental to the future of the company.

And they already smoke the competition.

Put it this way: While Apple’s '99 Power Mac G4 supported a gigaflop of performance, the iPhone XS some readers carry in their pocket delivers around 5 teraflops.

That’s a huge amount of processing power, more than enough to handle learning vector quantization calculations, as Apple smartphones (I think) already do each time they assemble and recommend a new collection of images in your Photo album.

Memories are precious, but delivering them is AI.

What I’m arguing here is that the capacity to exploit the hardware and software on Apple devices for deployments of AI intelligence mean your devices will be able to indulge you in increasingly complex sets of tasks. 

The best way I can explain it is to think about Siri Shortcuts on steroids.

I'm limited in what I can see, but even I can visualize a one-word command to invoke a series of complex Photoshop edits, all on your iPhone. Or a series of words to grab text from one place, automatically lay it out, summon images, and create a newspaper, website or magazine. Or to download data from one or more places and put it through various forms of visual analysis.

Or to do whatever it is you already do in work or play. 

All using a word or two.

Words that the AI automatically contextualizes using multiple criteria to your needs, removing complexity through accelerated symbiotic understanding.

Hopefully you see where I’m going.

Alexa also has an advantage

In terms of deployment and familiarity, Alexa is clearly winning consumer wallets.

Despite which, I seem to recall seeing data claiming Siri is now the most widely used voice assistant in the world.

The problem for Alexa is one of scale – though partnership may also be an opportunity.

If there’s a sticking point for deeper partnerships between Apple and Amazon over voice, it’s going to be around user privacy.

It is, after all, not impossible to figure out how to create Siri Shortcuts to initiate actions in Alexa or Google (convoluted as that may seem), but user privacy can’t be eroded as a result.

It’s possible the two companies can find some way to resolve that and other business challenges they have found.

Perhaps all they need to do is respect each other’s domains – for Apple, its about platforms, while for Amazon, it’s about retail sales, I suppose.

Because voice interfaces are not going to disappear.

Nor will they forever be defined by what they can do today – they will become increasingly contextualized and voice will be one of multiple ways in which they can be invoked.

But they’re going to need platforms to thrive.

They’re going to need developers prepared to deliver solutions to real-world tasks beyond the mundanity of shopping.

Alexa's rapid climb up the App Store charts shows this may be Amazon's game to lose – but really this shows that voice interface game of thrones has now truly begun.

What do you think, Siri?

Please follow me on Twitter, or join me in the AppleHolic’s bar & grill and Apple Discussions groups on MeWe.

Copyright © 2019 IDG Communications, Inc.

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