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Why AI will rule all UIs

Paul Rubens | March 23, 2017
Voice-controlled assistants are proliferating and opening them to third-party app makers is proving to be a key to success — for some assistants more than others.

When it comes to voice-enabling third-party devices, James McQuivey, an analyst at Forrester Research, says that Amazon has a huge advantage over its rivals. That's because it has been working on Alexa for two years, and it can draw on its experiences with its AWS cloud. "If you are working on a washing machine then any problems have probably already been solved, Alexa has been tested, and someone may already have deployed it for that use," he says. "Amazon has realized that for Alexa to be deployed like this then it has to handle the cloud, security and so on, and it has learned how to do that from AWS. Apple doesn't have that."

Of course, both Microsoft and Google do have experience running large-scale clouds, and technically there is probably not a big difference between their intelligent assistant technologies, McQuivey says. Companies' decisions about which to adopt could therefore hinge on more strategic considerations, like whether Amazon could become a direct competitor to them or if they want to align themselves with Google or Microsoft.



Despite being the first in this wave of intelligent assistants, Apple has been slow to offer Siri as a user interface to third-party applications; it's only with the release of iOS 10 and SiriKit that it has been possible for external developers to build software that can be controlled by Siri. Even so, the possibilities are severely limited compared to what developers can do with the Alexa Skills Kit.

SiriKit can be used to build apps only in a particular set of “domains” with specific “intents.” For example, a messaging app can register to support the Messages domain and the intent to send a message. Siri then handles all of the user interaction, including the voice and natural language recognition and getting information. As well as messaging, apps can be built that support the following domains: ride booking, photo search, payments, VoIP calling, workouts, and adjusting the climate controls and radio settings in CarPlay apps. But that's all.

Of all these intelligent assistants, Siri stands out as the exception because it is confined to devices made by Apple. And although that means that it is the most widely distributed, it is by no means the most commonly used. "A high percentage of Apple users say that they have used Siri once, but they don't use it often," says McQuivey. "By contrast, one third of Echo users use Alexa multiple times per day, and another third use it once a day," he adds.



Microsoft's Cortana is different from Siri or Alexa in that it is a multi-platform intelligent assistant. It first started out on Microsoft's mobile platform and is now available as an app on iOS and Android, as well as on Windows 10 and Microsoft's Xbox game platform.  It's a strategy that Microsoft calls making Cortana “unbound,” which the company explains — in an apparent dig at Apple — means that it is "tied to you, not to any one platform or device."


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