The next “iPhone moment”: Smart assistants for the home

Ever since Apple released the iPhone in 2007, people have been waiting for the next “iPhone moment” – the market introduction of a device or technology that dramatically changes the game. This is what the iPhone did. It changed the game. It invented a new product category (previous “smartphones” did not deserve the moniker), turned it into a mass-market sales success, inspired competitors to produce their own solutions, created a billion-dollar ecosystem, disrupted numerous existing industries and completely altered the way how people use the Internet.

However, until today there has not been another iPhone moment. The iPad did not reach up (despite its category-defining character). Neither did Google Glass, fitness trackers or smartwatches. It still remains to be seen where the Apple Watch will go in terms of mass appeal and game-changing potential. Right now it seems unlikely though that it will have the large-scale impact of the iPhone. Possibly virtual reality headsets will fly off the shelves once they are being introduced to the broad public next year. But many question marks remain.

Personally, here is my guess (or prediction) for the next iPhone moment: It will be the smart assistant for the home. I wrote about that type of device some months ago when Amazon presented its “Echo” smart speaker. Now Echo is available for everyone in the U.S. to order. Furthermore, Echo’s cloud-based virtual assistant, “Alexa”, is available for integration into third party devices. Essentially, Amazon is creating a cloud-based virtual assistant ecosystem and Echo is the company’s own showcase of it. Very exciting (even though I am critical towards the underlying intention which of course is to sell more stuff to people).

I have no idea whether Echo or the Alexa platform will become a hit. However, I see huge chances that smart speakers incorporating virtual assistants will turn into a huge consumer hit over the next years; into something worth being compared to the introduction of the iPhone in terms of overall impact.

What I think will happen:

  • Within a comparatively short amount of time, millions of people will set up an Internet-enabled assistant in their home which they will talk to and interact with.
  • These assistants could either come as native smart speakers or as other types of smart devices that include the feature of an assistant while also providing other services – e.g. the Apple TV or the Xbox. The purchasing price of the device needs to be low enough to allow for impulse purchases. I would not be surprised if Amazon at one point starts to give Echo away for free to Prime customers.
  • The obvious candidates to push forward in this field are Amazon (Echo, Alexa), Apple (of course with Siri, baked into the Apple TV or maybe on a native device such as a “Siri Box”, connected to/built on HomeKit), Microsoft (Cortana, Xbox) and Google (Nest, Google Now, powered by Brillo). Facebook has not shown any ambitions yet but generally cannot be ruled out. Maybe Samsung, Sonos or Jawbone could play a role here as well. And of course there is a chance for startups, although in order to create a voice-controlled smart assistant that actually works and does not frustrate its users, probably more than 3 people in a garage are needed. Although, who knows.

Right now I find it hard to predict whether the big winner in this product category rather would be a software platform that is open to all kinds of manufacturers or whether it will be specific device. It could be either way.

In any case, I am convinced that consumers will enjoy putting a device into their living room (and possibly any other room) they can interact with by speaking and listening. This will again completely change how they use the Internet. Suddenly voice becomes a big deal. Not all types of information fit well into voice. But many do. And unlike when walking around outside or sitting on the bus, talking to a machine is not awkward because you are in the comfort and privacy of your home.

We’ll see how this all plays out. Amazon is the first mover. The others will follow quickly. This is going to be an interesting race.

One comment

  1. My dad bought an Amazon Echo early, which at first I thought was stupid. Well, I was wrong — it’s awesome. So convenient to have in the kitchen. Integrates with everything — Pandora, to-do lists, etc — and it’s especially awesome if you have Prime because you’re tapped into the giant Prime music library. Also Alexa is just endearing/funny, which is a weird thing about robots. When they mess up a little, it’s cute. Same with the Roomba, which really is a must-have domestic gadget.

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