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How Amazon is beating Google in the smart assistant wars

JP Mangalindan
·Chief Tech Correspondent

Forget the boatload of 5G, automotive, and 8K TV announcements. If CES 2019 proved anything, it’s that smart assistants are more ubiquitous than ever — and Amazon’s Alexa remains the market leader.

At last week’s tech expo in Las Vegas, Amazon (AMZN) and Google (GOOG, GOOGL) dominated once again. While Google tripled the amount of showroom space it had with a massive two-story ad hoc building and five-car roller coaster in the parking lot across from the Las Vegas Convention Center, Amazon took a more understated approach, renting out a ballroom at The Venetian hotel and populating it with hundreds of Alexa-enabled products from Amazon and other vendors.

“It’s been an incredible pace of change,” acknowledges Robin Murdoch, global managing director of software and platforms at Accenture. “This year, people are just expecting that voice will be integrated into everything. It’s absolutely everything. But if you step back three years, it [voice] was barely here.”

Dissecting the numbers

In this June 14, 2018, photo, Gareth Gaston, Executive Vice President and Head of Omnichannel Banking at US Bank, discusses voice assistant banking with an Amazon Echo, left, and a Google Home, right, in New York. Big banks and financial companies have started to offer banking through virtual assistants, Amazon’s Alexa, Apple’s Siri, and Google’s Assistant, in a way that will allow customers to check their balances, pay bills and, in the near future, send money just with their voice. Regional banking giant U.S. Bank is the first bank to be on all three services, Alexa, Siri and Assistant. (AP Photo/Mark Lennihan)
At CES 2019 last week, Amazon's Alexa and Google Assistant duked it out once again on the showroom floors. Source: AP Photo/Mark Lennihan

Days before CES kicked off, Amazon and its partners announced it had sold over 100 million Alexa-enabled devices. That's roughly 10 times less than Google's announced figures, which is that 1 billion people across Android and iOS devices have Google Assistant — up from 500 million this past May — via Google Home speakers and third-party products.

Google’s numbers are impressive but remember: the vast majority of Google Assistant owners own Android smartphones, which come with Google Assistant already built-in. And consumer adoption around Google Assistant is different from Amazon Alexa at the moment: Most people aren’t buying Android devices specifically because of Google Assistant the way others are purchasing say, Amazon Echo speakers specifically for Alexa. They’re buying largely because of the mobile operating system, which is in this case, Android.

A more telling stat is Alexa’s market share in the smart speaker sector, where Amazon owned a 67% share by the end of 2018 — more than twice Google’s market share. Although Palo Alto-based technology research firm Canalys reports Google is selling more and more speakers, Amazon is expected to maintain its significant lead this year.

Third-party adoption

This prototype Alexa-enabled motorcycle helmet from EyeLights, featured at CES 2019 last week, is just one example of how popular Amazon's smart assistant has become with third-party companies. Source: JP Mangalindan/Yahoo Finance
This prototype Alexa-enabled motorcycle helmet from EyeLights, featured at CES 2019 last week, is just one example of how popular Amazon's smart assistant has become with third-party companies. Source: JP Mangalindan/Yahoo Finance

There was no shortage of voice-enabled devices at CES 2019 last week. Sure, there were more Google Assistant-enabled devices at CES 2019 versus last year — TV soundbars, car add-ons, bathroom and vanity mirrors — but the number of Google Assistant-enabled devices we spotted still paled in comparison to the number of Alexa-enabled gadgets, from Kohler’s smart toilet and autonomous lawn mower to an electronic keyboard and prototype motorcycle helmet. And as absurd as it seems to point out, niche devices like Kohler’s splashy $7,000 toilet were Alexa-only — a testament to Alexa’s general popularity versus competitors like Google Assistant and Samsung’s Bixby. (It’s worth noting Microsoft Cortana and Apple’s Siri were virtually nowhere to be found at CES this year.)

“Google invested big in presence and showing off, however Amazon to me was equally or more visible,” contends Forrester analyst Frank Gillett, who was at this year’s convention. “They [Amazon] had a big ballroom: there was a steady queue to check in to go to the show case. Not quite the same obvious showy advertising [as Google’s], but Amazon Alexa compatibility is a given. If you’re going to do a voice interface, the first one just has to be Alexa.”

Amazon would not disclose the number of Alexa-enabled devices at this year’s CES. However, an Amazon spokesperson told Yahoo Finance the number of third-party devices with Alexa built in increased over last 12 months, with over 100 different products launched throughout 2018 and “dozens” more announced at CES last week.

Google did not respond to Yahoo Finance’s request for comment.

A rapidly growing competitive market

Voice assistants have received significant traction over the last several years, but the market is far from being fully saturated.

According to a survey published last week by Accenture, 50% of online consumers worldwide use digital voice assistants — up from 42% just a year ago — with voice-enabled speakers currently being one of the fastest-growing technologies. Accenture polled 22,500 consumers across 21 countries for the survey. Of those surveyed, 96% expressed satisfaction with their voice-enabled devices.

Given Alexa’s years-long head start and sheer brand visibility, eMarketer estimates Amazon’s smart assistant will remain the market leader in areas including smart speakers throughout 2019, maintaining a 63% market share — at least twice that of Google’s. However, Google is expected to slightly gain some ground, as well.

For Amazon and Google, that means many more years of duking it out. The challenge for Amazon in the coming years is maintaining its sizable lead: a task best accomplished by continuing to build out Alexa’s growing Skills set and relationships with outside companies. Google’s challenge right now is convincing more third-party developers that it’s worth their while to bake Google Assistant into devices versus just including Alexa.

That won’t be easy, despite Google’s massive war chest, but competition should make for some entertaining experiences at events like CES and with new devices that push the envelope.

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