At last year’s CES, Amazon.com Inc. managed to dominate the show without even being there, as other companies unveiled new projects that were compatible with its virtual assistant Alexa. All of this Alexa enthusiasm prompted Amazon’s biggest rival in voice, Alphabet Inc.’s Google, to show up to this week’s CES with its largest presence to date, in a bid to gain ground.
During the show, Google GOOGL, +1.67% dispatched white-clad human Google Assistants across the convention center. It also installed giant interactive Google gumball machines at the main convention center and outfitted monorail trains with Assistant insignia.
Google and Amazon AMZN, +2.23% are fighting in a number of ways, including voice, which remained a major theme in nearly every aspect of CES this year, from refrigerators to televisions. Both Amazon and Google picked up wins again when manufacturers announced new products that were compatible with one of these voice assistants.
But as voice becomes more crucial across devices, manufacturers need to introduce products capable of letting consumers choose their preferred assistant upon unboxing. CES featured many products that worked with one of the assistants, but not many that played nice with multiple.
Cars seem to offer some flexibility in this regard, with Panasonic showing off its new infotainment system that works with Amazon’s Alexa and Google’s Assistant. Computers are also becoming ready to support multiple assistants. HP Inc. talked up its Pavilion Wave desktop, which doubles as a PC and a smart speaker. The company said this year that the Pavilion Wave is now compatible with Alexa, along with Microsoft Inc.’s Cortana.
So far, smart speakers lag these categories, though Sonos teases a speaker last year that’s capable of working with multiple assistants. Gummi Hafsteinsson, the product manager for Google’s Assistant, acknowledged during a conversation with MarketWatch that there aren’t many devices capable of letting consumers choose their preferred assistant.
Chip maker Qualcomm QCOM, -0.08% says the issue is more commercial than it is technical. It’s “technically possible” to allow for switches, according to Anthony Murray, who heads the company’s voice and music unit. “Consumers would love it,” he added, but the question is whether “the ecosystem guys would allow and be comfortable with it.”
Amazon says it’s open to such devices. “We think customer choice is important and that multiple AIs can be complementary of one another,” an Amazon spokesperson said. “There are devices out there today that support multiple voice services, and additional hardware developers have announced plans to support multiple AIs, including Alexa, on the same device.”
Google didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.
For Amazon and Google, the voice-assistant business isn’t so much about selling speakers — the two companies heavily discounted their products during the holidays. The tech giants are more concerned with hooking people on their respective ecosystems, compiling data on users, and steering consumers to preferred shopping channels.
Apple AAPL, +1.03% also seems focused on limiting access to rival platforms when it finally starts selling it’s delayed HomePod speaker. The company appears to be favoring Apple Music on the forthcoming device.
Users of Pandora P, +0.44% or Spotify will have to select songs on their phone and direct the HomePod to play them. Apple Music subscribers will be able to call up songs via voice commands.
Pandora CEO Roger Lynch told us at CES that this move seems like a “huge mistake” for Apple and compared the company’s actions to those of AOL during the early days of the internet. “AOL was the internet for people because it was a walled garden, and then the internet just trounced it because people want open access to things.”
“The idea that you’re going to sell a device that only connects to one product is so two decades ago, three decades ago,” he added.