Many of you who received an Amazon Echo for Christmas. It was one of Amazon’s top-selling products over the holiday period.
There is a double exponential going on with the Echo (and Alexa, the voice assistant embedded in it) right now. It is a clear milestone in the #voicefirst shift, the arrival of voice recognition as a primary interface.
First of all, deployment and usage of Alexa has spiked. By looking at downloads and usage of the Alexa app (available for iOS and Android) we can proxy Echo installations. Echo users need to download the app to configure the device.
The number of monthly users of the official Alexa app in the US alone increased five-fold in 90 days to Christmas. In Q1 last year, Alexa downloads were running at about 80-90k per month; by Q3 this has risen to 150k per month. November saw 500k downloads and December 2.5m downloads
. Total US installed base is now estimated at 5m
(about 4% of households.)
The second growth is the number of ‘skills’ that Alexa has. A ‘skill’ is essentially a service - like a newspaper, food delivery service or game - that you can access via Alexa. This time last year, Alexa had fewer than 100 skills, that had grown 10x by June 2016, and Alexa ended the year with 7,000 skills.
Alexa is riding the wave of dramatic improvements in automated speech recognition driven by deep learning. This graph
, extracted from this paper by Nuance Communications
, shows how ASR has gone from unusable in 2009 to pretty damn good in 2015. Since then, of course, there have been pretty impressive improvements all being deployed rapidly to the Google, Baidu and Amazon clouds. (Baidu’s English speech recognition
is more accurate than a human typist.)
What makes ‘voice first’ interesting:
- It is a very natural way for us get things done. We can dispense with the metaphors of forms, drop downs, menu bars, icons and form filling and replace it with a more natural modality: speech.
- It kills the advertising and pay-per-click model that has made Google over the past two decades. This hasn’t escaped Google, says Sridhar Ramaswamy, Google’s SVP of Ads: “one thing that we are all clear about is the days of three top text ads followed by ten organic results is a thing of the past in the voice first world.”
- It creates new choke points which businesses will need to navigate in order to reach their customers. Read Ben Thompson on how Alexa creates an operating system-like positioning for Amazon.
- It might reduce smartphone distraction. Browsing by voice is not (yet) as easy as browsing on a phone but a voice interface does provide a simple way to handle phone like tasks (weather, reminders, time, ordering) without picking up a device.