Who is Alexa, and what does she do when she’s at home?

Voice-activated technology is moving in to a home near you. Best put out the welcome mat.

Alexa, the voice-activated interface used with Amazon’s Echo devices, arrived on Australian shores in early 2018 (it’s been available in the USA since 2014 and the UK since 2016). And Alexa really can do a lot when she’s at home: tell you the forecast, read out the day’s news headlines, schedule an appointment in your calendar, set a timer or alarm, and add to shopping and to-do lists.  

With added apps or ‘skills’ enabled, Alexa can check your bank balance with Westpac and NAB, tell you when your EnergyAustralia bill is due, help you organise a tradie through hipages, and order you a pizza from Dominos. Other companies to have created skills for use with Alexa in Australia are SEEK, Taste.com.au, Airtasker, Qantas and Telstra Smart Home, to name a few.

Alexa can also stream music directly using Spotify, iHeartRadio, TuneIn or Amazon Music Unlimited, all the while obeying commands such as skipping or repeating songs, or adjusting the volume.

Apple HomePod

Of course, Alexa is not the only voice-activated assistant available in Australia. We all know of Apple’s Siri, which debuted in 2011. Siri can do many of the tasks Alexa can – tell you the forecast or the day’s news headlines, schedule an appointment, tell you your commute time, etc – but not just on your phone, iPad and computer. Siri is also the voice-activated interface built in to Apple’s new HomePod, which – like the Amazon Echo – has also recently gone on sale in Australia.

HomePod is designed to work with Apple Music ($10 a month). Its point of difference is high-quality sound, and sound that adjusts according to the individual acoustics and dynamics of the room its placed in. (At a launch price of around $500, it’s also much more expensive than the Amazon Echo, which was priced around $120 at launch). In terms of smart technology around the house (heating, lighting, security), HomePod works with Apple’s HomeKit devices.

Google Home

Google Home (Launch RRP $200, though you can get it for less) snuck into the Australian market ahead of both these major players, launching here in mid 2017. Like Alexa/Echo and Siri/HomePod, Google Home can undertake a number of tasks, such as conveying news and transport information, adding items to shopping lists – and, helpfully, reading recipes aloud so you can cook without stopping to look at a recipe. Google Home works with the Google Nest smart home suite, but it’s also compatible with over 1500 smart devices from more than 225 brands (and this number is tipped to rise). It’s likely to soon incorporate Google Duplex, the controversial new Google Assistant feature that places calls on your behalf, complete with a human-sounding voice.

And then there’s Microsoft’s voice-activated assistant Cortana, which IS available with the Windows 10 platform in Australia – but not easily, if the confusion on online forums is anything to go by. And there is no Cortana speaker device, as there is with Alexa/Echo, Siri/HomePod, and Google/Google Home. But Cortana’s claim to have 100 million monthly active users do tell us that this voice-activated assistant’s market presence is nothing to sneeze at.

The numbers

The growing voice-activated assistant trend is confirmed by a recent study from Juniper Research in the USA, which found that 55 per cent of all American households, or more than 70 million homes, will use at least one smart speaker by 2022. Australia is expected to follow this trend, with Australian companies moving to capitalise on voice-activated technology, such as AtlasTrend’s recent release of ‘Astro’ – Australia’s first voice-activated personal investment assistant.

Since its launch, Google reports that there are 400 million devices installed with Google Assistant – however, this probably translates to a much lower amount of Google Home devices sold. More than 20 million homes in the USA have adopted an Echo or Echo-enabled device since the product first went on sale in 2014. One in 10 homes in the UK have a voice-activated assistant (8% of those have Amazon Echo, and 2% have Google Home, which only released in the UK in 2017). According to Apple, Siri is now actively used on more than half a billion devices (though it’s early days for HomePod).

But here’s the thing that matters most for Australian businesses – even more than considering whether your company needs to build a skill for Echo, or an app for Google Home: one fifth of Google searches are voice-activated already, with cross-platform measurement company comScore predicting that in the USA, 50% of all searches will be voice searches by 2020. We’ll bring you more on the topic of voice searches soon – because the ramifications will be huge.

If you want to be prepared for the voice-activated revolution, call Red Cloud today.