Entner: AI, digital assistants fortifying the next battleground in smartphones

Amazon's Echo device sports the company's Alexa digital assistant.

About 15 years ago while working at the Yankee Group, I predicted that the cell phone industry would bifurcate. One branch would become palm-size touchscreen slabs, basically what we know today as smartphones. We are now slowly seeing the advent of the second branch, voice-centric devices like what we know from Star Trek as communicators. A wearable device that gets activated by touch and then is fully controlled by voice commands.

New voice-controlled devices are taking over homes at an incredible speed. Amazon’s Alexa and Google Home are just the vanguard of the new devices we will see. Powered by voice recognition and paired with AI they become imbedded into our daily lives. The most significant breakthroughs have come in the area of AI. Google’s AI has conquered the most complex game, Go, by not only beating one of the best players in the world Lee Sedol, 9-Dan Professional, by 5-1 but it raised the bar by also beating World Champion Nie Something as well as other Go professionals in computer matches by 60-0. As a Go player myself this is truly a mind-blowing development. Amazon’s, Facebook’s and IBM’s Watson AI initiatives are well known. While beating professional Go players is daunting and impressive, fully understanding how Americans or people in other countries communicate is exponentially more difficult.

Already today the power envelope – computing power, battery power, power consumption – and the excess heat that is generated by using the device will be within the parameters that are required to construct and productively use such a device for an entire day. The initial devices will probably come in two parts. A Bluetooth earpiece and the base unit that has the power and connectivity components, which will be carried somewhere near the body, either in a pocket, attached to the belt, in a purse or bag. For charging convenience, the earpiece can be plugged into the base unit for combined charging via a USB connection or charged separately with a second charger. The huge advantage of the device is that its size is not tied to that of a touch screen. The freedom of designers to create new innovative designs is boundless. Minimization of the mobile device can resume the path it went down when Motorola introduced the RAZR. Suddenly small and even smaller was the way to go. Ultra-portability was the design paradigm. With the advent of the iPhone and subsequent Android devices culminating in the Phablet completely reversed the miniaturization trend. Voice centric mobile devices will be able to pick up when the RAZR and Nokia’s Lipstick phone – also affectionately called the 7280 in Finland – left off.

Amazon’s Google Now (really? Only an engineer can come up with such an unnecessarily narcissistic name – do yourself a favor and pick a different hotword), Apple’s Siri and Amazon’s Alexa assistants are the foundational AI building blocks. While Google Now and Siri are considerably more powerful, it was Amazon that made the revolutionary step solely relying on voice control input. The rave reviews devices like Amazon’s Alexa get for their ease of use and immediate utility could give Amazon a second lease on life if it wants to mobile device market. While the Amazon Fire smartphone was a good try it never the less fell short because it approached the market evolutionary mindset instead of a revolutionary. At the same time, we have to recognize the downside of evolutionary change gone bad is considerably smaller than that of revolutionary change gone bad. In terms of a mobile device it’s the difference between a (hopefully) good phone with a potentially great feature that doesn’t work and a really expensive paper weight.

Amazon is really smart in opening up Alexa to third-party developers rather than rely exclusively on their own staff to create the entire capabilities or in Amazon Alexa lingo “skills.” I was attending the AT&T Developer Summit during CES and one of the runner ups was a connected Coffee Maker that was powered by Alexa. This kind of openness will attract more developers than Apple and Google combined can hire. This kind of openness is what made the iPhone a megahit as it created the App Store harnessing, monetizing and distributing the ingenuity of developers everywhere. Without Google Play, the utility of Android phones would be a fraction of what it is and could be, but only because they opened developing for it to everyone. What could take the adoption of these third-party capabilities to the next level is if the device manufacturer would not only allow everyone to develop, distribute and sell these additional capabilities, but also curate them into bundles that tackle various problems. This would dramatically help with discovery, but also build trust among the customers who own a voice controlled device.

Roger Entner is the Founder and Analyst of Recon Analytics, which provides unparalleled insights into the world of telecommunications. As a globally recognized telecom expert, Roger is quoted thousands of times every year by media outlets like the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, USA Today, Financial Times, ABC, CBS, NBC, Fox, CNBC, NPR, PBS, and CNN. In 2012, he became one of the youngest graduate of Heriot-Watt University to receive an Honorary Doctor of Science. The university bestowed it upon him for his contributions to the advancements in research of the telecommunications market. Follow Roger on Twitter @rogerentner.