Amazon, Google Assistant Battle Revives Smart Home Race at CES

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(Bloomberg) -- For years, the biggest names in tech crammed the Consumer Electronics Show floor with fridges, light switches and microwave ovens to preview a futuristic world where you could control every appliance in the home with your voice.

But most of these products, bogged down by glitchy software and hard-to-navigate interfaces, failed to go mainstream.

This year may be different. Aided by new artificial intelligence software that makes it easier for gadgets to understand speech, tech giants led by Inc. are locked in a race for dominance of digital home assistants.

"People are a bit disappointed with assistants, because there are no clear use cases," said Greg Gerard, creative chairman of Holi, which is debuting a $199 smart alarm clock called Bonjour. "We have one.”

Gerard must show regular consumers the value of smart assistant technology. But he doesn't need to convince big technology firms, which all believe voice-based interactions with devices will explode in popularity. Almost every major tech company has or will soon introduce a digital assistant product powered by AI. And they're making a concerted effort to spread the technology everywhere.

Alphabet Inc.'s Google is using CES to tout tie-ups with its smart Home speaker, a device similar to Amazon's Echo. Microsoft Corp. has invested heavily in its assistant, Cortana. Samsung Electronics Co. is set to unveil its assistant tech for its phones and other devices in 2017. Last month, Facebook Inc. Chief Executive Officer Mark Zuckerberg showed off a smart home assistant he said he coded himself.

Behind the scenes at CES, these tech behemoths will fight to get their voice-based systems into televisions, cable boxes and every home appliance, not just smartphones and PCs. Analysts expect several dozen announcements around voice-systems at this week's event in Las Vegas, including new functions for internet-connected devices and cars. Ford Motor Co. unveiled an integration with Alexa on Wednesday.

Then there are the specialized assistants, ranging from the Bonjour clock, which Gerard said will arrive later this year, to a personal home robot from startup Jibo -- a compact, futuristic device designed to recognize human emotions, said company Chief Executive Officer Steve Chambers.

Research firm Tractica estimates about 40 million homes will use a voice-activated digital assistant by 2021.

Amazon's version, Alexa, introduced in 2014 on the Echo speaker, works with more than 6,000 applications, according to a company spokeswoman. On Tuesday, Amazon announced a partnership with Whirlpool Corp., adding voice command capabilities to Whirlpool washers, dryers, ovens and refrigerators.

Amazon has built an effective developer outreach strategy and introduced a $100 million investment fund for startups creating products around voice applications. Unlike other tech peers, Amazon has a dominant sales channel for its voice-assistance partners.

"Amazon has been brilliant about it," said Mark Beccue, an analyst at Tractica. "They might be the best trigger to the smart home, to making it a mass-market product."

Google Makes Its Splash

Last year, Biz Stone revamped his startup, Jelly Industries Inc., as a search engine—something that puts it up against Google. But when Google began hunting partners last month for its Home speaker, Jelly was among the first to sign on.

Google was a zealous suitor. Employees treated him to lunch and when the deal closed a Google operative sent him an animated gif of Seinfeld characters dancing. "They've been a joy to work with," said Stone, who co-founded Twitter Inc.

Google's aggressive courtship is understandable; it's behind Amazon. Since inception, Google's business was based on keyboard-based searches. Now the web giant is refocusing its strategy around its voice assistant, a system that sits in its speaker, Pixel smartphone and—if Google succeeds— every device imaginable. On Tuesday at CES, Google announced a partnership with Hyundai Motor Co. that lets drivers control some car functions by talking to the Home speaker. It's expected to unveil more assistant partnerships with devices like smart TVs.

Google has an edge in building voice technology, thanks to its unmatched repository of search data. But the company must prove it can distribute its assistant widely. Hurdles exist. The same month Google debuted its Pixel phone, Samsung, the largest Android phone manufacturer, acquired Viv Labs, a startup building a voice-powered assistant. Samsung plans to roll out an AI platform for its devices this year, the company said in a statement. Apple Inc., which tightly controls about 40% of U.S. smartphones, is investing in a similar push with its Siri voice assistant.

Microsoft already has software tools for developers to embed Cortana into devices, and its automotive partners will announce new integrations at CES, said Matthew Quinlan, Cortana's director of product marketing. "For Cortana to do her job, she needs to be in a lot of different devices."

And there's Facebook. The company has said that Zuckerberg's smart-home tech was merely a demonstration. Yet the social network is testing more bot integrations with the AI-assistant in its popular Messenger chat app, a product Google has struggled to deliver.

Still, Amazon remains the one to catch. For developers building voice-assisted tools, the company offers support from its already popular cloud-computing platform, giving it another edge.

"You are not going to see a clear no. 2 emerge in 2017," said Forrester analyst Mike Gualtieri. "Technologically, Google is the closest competitor. But in terms of Google's ability to get it into homes, I question that."

Assistant Nightmare

Another question is how to make money from a voice-controlled home. Profit margins on hardware sales are usually thin and voice-controlled computers may throw a wrench in established business models, like text-based web search.

Some investors backing the technology aren't concerned. "There are lots and lots of ways you can monetize when you control the interface," said John Lilly, a venture capitalist with Greylock Partners. "You control control information flow. You can route requests. You can certainly ship people stuff."

Lilly, who backs AI assistant startup Ozlo, insists young companies can make dents in the market with more advanced technology, like systems that can carry on complex conversations, rather than the relatively simple commands Alexa uses. However, analysts are skeptical that startups can match the budgets and data reserves of public tech companies.

Still, that may not dissuade companies, large and small, from trying to build their own voice assistants. With that rush, the question of who controls the tools will become paramount.

"In less than three years, every home will have the opportunity to have this digital assistant," said Forrester's Gualtieri. "Now you’ll have the question of who am I talking to: Amazon Echo or my refrigerator? So that could be a nightmare."

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