Admit it: That first time you picked up your iPhone and asked Siri to play your favourite tune—and she actually did—it felt a bit like magic. Alas, the novelty quickly faded, and it became apparent that, for most practical things, virtual helpers like Siri can't actually accomplish much.
That lacklustre experience, however, is about to change—and the shift to voice, like mobile before it, will have significant consequences both for consumers and businesses. Apple recently reorganized its cloud and services team to make Siri smarter and more responsive, while Google and Microsoft are each throwing significant resources behind Assistant and Cortana, respectively. They're all chasing Amazon, whose Alexa virtual assistant has taken a lead since its launch in late 2014, in no small part because Alexa is—wait for it—actually useful.
Alexa (which isn't yet available in Canada) differs from other voice-controlled assistants because it resides not on a phone, but on Amazon's voice-activated Echo smart speaker—a 23-centimetre-high cylinder that sits in your home. Alexa doesn't simply play music at your command; it will also hail you an Uber, turn on the morning news or order items from Amazon's enormous online marketplace.
It's that last bit that is truly new and disruptive here. The digital assistant is set to replace the smartphone as our primary mode of interacting with the digital world. And even more so than our pocket computers, digital assistants will link the hardware you use to how and what you consume.
To anyone who grew up in the pre-Internet era, this is a strange phenomenon. What brand of TV you owned didn't determine the products you bought or where you bought them. That changed slightly in the early digital era: If you owned an iPhone or MacBook, you might have bought your music and movies through iTunes, but that was the extent of the lock-in.
Digital assistants, however, are tightly tied into broader services, both digital and physical. Already, you can tell Alexa to "reorder the coffee I bought last time" or "buy Tide laundry soap" and, in a day or two, Amazon will have delivered them to your door. You can also use the same plain language to have Alexa set reminders, get the weather report, dig up random statistics and, yes, play music. It's a productivity tool, a shopping app and a form of entertainment, all in one.
In Amazon's best-case scenario, Alexa slips so easily into your routine that you'll find more and more ways to use it, heightening the stickiness of its digital ecosystem. Other companies are connecting their own services to Alexa, as well. In the U.S., Alexa can check your Capital One bank balance, read recipes from Campbell's, order a pizza from Domino's, and control "smart home" devices like lights or your thermostat.
This kind of vertical integration, in which once-disparate dimensions of business—tech, media, retail, services—coalesce under a single platform, is becoming the norm. It's winner-take-all, with the prize of becoming the gatekeeper for how people access just about everything in their daily lives.
That means we're looking at a future in which enormous multinationals operate closed ecosystems—no longer just constrained to digital content, but delivering your groceries as well as your social media updates. The added challenge for Canadian companies is the sheer scale involved: Amazon has 300 million customers, while Google has well over a billion, which makes it nearly impossible to interrupt this shift. The only choice, then, is to get inside one of these ecosystems. After all, the fact that customers can order an Uber or a pizza just by asking for it is a boon for both the companies and consumers. As 2001: A Space Odyssey's HAL—the original digital assistant—might have said, "I am putting myself to the fullest possible use."