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Digital Assistants and the Rise of Voice Search: News Updates

Several significant developments in the realm of voice search and digital assistants have occurred since we started this series, providing more proof that this space is moving quickly. Although we’ve known advancements would move rapidly, we have been a bit surprised at the pace. In this post, we outline some of these recent developments from the perspective of an e-commerce brand or retailer.

Holy Alliances, Batman!

Digital assistants Google Walmart allianceMuch of the news centered around a few potentially significant partnerships. First, Google and Walmart announced that Walmart will be integrated with Google Express through Google Assistant, giving consumers the ability to more easily order from Walmart. Google Express started as a shopping service in 2013; it originally featured couriers who would shop and then deliver items to your door within hours. Inherently, this is a very hard (many would say impossible) business model to scale to profitability; it has since evolved into a service that rivals Amazon Prime, featuring an annual subscription and a number of large retailers offering free 1-2 day shipping (Walgreens, Costco, Petsmart, Kohls, etc). With this announcement, Google announced it is dropping the membership fee and shipping will be free, based on each merchant’s policies.

The most interesting consumer piece here is the fact that Walmart talks about deeply integrating its Easy Reorder feature into Google Express. One of our points in our earlier post was that the shopping list is a key element of voice. The ability to say “OK Google, reorder diapers from my Walmart reorder list” is a real game-changer and creates a significant shortcut for a consumer.  

The combination of Google’s investments and expertise in search and natural language processing along with Walmart’s scale and renewed investment in e-commerce under Marc Lore makes this development one to watch.  

Interoperability

One ongoing challenge of digital assistants is that one type largely cannot interact with others. Imagine a world in which, if you had an Android phone, you could only text those on Android phones. Or a browser that only pulled up certain websites. This lack of interoperability is why some have talked about the digital assistant market being a “winner take household” market. Fora “bilingual” consumers using both Google and Amazon assistants, this layer of complexity doesn’t help simplify the experience.  Well, this dynamic may be changing. Amazon and Microsoft recently announced that Cortana and Alexa will work together. The primary use case here is leveraging Cortana (via Alexa) to access applications like Microsoft Outlook and Calendar and accessing Alexa (via Cortana) to shop. Microsoft has stated 145 million people use Cortana through Windows 10 alone.

Other News

Alexa is staffing up — Amazon is reportedly hiring “hundreds of engineers” and giving priority to the Alexa program over other initiatives. Despite being well out in front in terms of digital assistant market share, Amazon still appears to be investing heavily.

Sonos announced a new smart speaker coming in October. Speculation is that voice capabilities are a big part of this launch. In the meantime, Amazon announced new integration capabilities that enable smart home speakers to be integrated with Amazon devices such as Echo or the Echo Dot. It increasingly looks like software will power the operating system and “brain,” putting more pressure on hardware manufacturers to innovate.

Amazon’s acquisition of Whole Foods has been approved and closed. One of the first noticeable changes was the introduction of Amazon devices for sale in Whole Foods stores, prompting many laughs about organic, farm fresh Echos.

In our next installment, we will return to our regular series on voice search and will outline what brands and retailers should be doing to prepare for the future evolution of shopping.

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