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Everything is a virtual assistant now

Mike Elgan | Jan. 9, 2017
At CES, we're learning that virtual assistants like Amazon's Alexa will be delivered as a utility to almost every appliance in your home.

Chinese smartphone giant Huawei announced at CES that its $599.99 Mate 9 phablet would become the first smartphone to ship with Alexa integration pre-installed and integrated. While Alexa is available in a smattering of mobile apps for both Android and iOS platforms, the Huawei integration appears to offer "always-listening" hands-free access to Alexa.

All these new Alexa appliances join several announced last year, including a lamp called the C by GE. I really like this idea because, as I said in this space a year ago, lights and light bulbs are uniquely suitable as locations for virtual assistants.

One line of products shown at CES functions both as an Alexa-controlled device and an Alexa appliance: Ford cars. The first implementation will show up in the Focus Electric, Fusion Energi, and C-Max Energi cars. Ford Sync Connect users will gain the ability to start, lock or unlock the doors, and get information about the car from any Alexa device.

Later this summer, Alexa itself will be made available in Ford cars, so you can interact with Alexa from inside the car, including the ability to control the audio system with voice commands. The car dashboard works like an Amazon Echo.

When virtual assistants are everywhere and always listening

Let's be clear about what's happening with virtual assistants. As I predicted in this space in 2014, within a few years, you will almost never be out of virtual assistant range. When you talk, they will hear you. You won't even have to think about which device is serving you. Just ask a question and a voice will answer.

There are two ways to achieve this: The Apple way and the Amazon way.

The Apple way is to serve up its Siri virtual assistant primarily as a feature on mobile devices like the iPhone and the Apple Watch (two exceptions are the stationary Apple TV and iMac). By choosing "Allow 'Hey Siri' " in the settings of an iPhone, your phone is always listening for the "Hey Siri" command. Everywhere you go, Siri is listening, as long as you bring your iPhone.

The Amazon way is to offer Alexa Echo appliances for every room in the house and also open its virtual assistant to hardware developers so Amazon is built into every appliance, vehicle and object in the home and office.

The Google way, meanwhile, is to do both at the same time -- get a virtual assistant into every phone, on every computer and also open to third parties. Google is more than a year behind Amazon in third-party integration.

The biggest challenge for Google in this space is Google itself. Google's virtual assistant strategy is muddled and confusing. Quick, what's Google's virtual assistant? Is it the Google Assistant? Or is it Google Now? And what is Google Voice Search? Isn't Google Assistant mostly just Google Voice Search?


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