1. What made you get into voice?
Magnus: Since you’re a prominent figure on the voice scene now, which in itself haven’t been around that long, but you’ve been doing the Voicebot podcast for three years I was curious to know what did you do before, what made you go into voice?
Bret: In 2013 I actually started with voice on mobile, we where working on interactive audio ads which where served for Spotify’s free version for example. The idea is if you’re served an ad for anything you’re listening to, you might not be engaging with the screen. So if you’re interested in what the call-to-action was, how would you actually engage with that? We had done some analysis and 85% of the Spotify listeners where never looking at the screen when the ads where served.
That experience introduced me to the construction of the voice assistant, this was post Siri but pre Alexa, pre Google Assistant, Bixby etc. So we learned a lot about how voice assistants operate, what works, what doesn’t work and I just happened to be in a situation where Amazon approached the company I was doing some work with, asked us to support Alexa, I did some analysis of the space and I thought it was very interesting. It reminded me of something I had seen before in the 1990s with the web acting as a new technology transition.
I wound up writing an article for a friend of mine over at Advertising Week, it got picked up by a couple of other places and people started asking me: ”Hey where can I get that information?”
Because back in 2016 it was really hard to come by, there was a little bit about devices but it wasn’t much on what it meant, what it could mean, how to look at it in the context of mobile, social and the web. I said ok no problem, I put up voicebot.ai and started sharing links, provided a couple of additional articles, blog posts and that’s really how it all started.
That was before the podcast, voicebot.ai preceded the podcast by almost a year. It was really just a labor of love at the beginning because I was interested in it, I saw this new tech platform shift which Ive always been interested in and I have had the opportunity to participate in 3.5 of those now. So I started putting the information out and the fall of 2016 turned out to be a very busy time in the voice industry.
So it just turned out to be a really good timing I guess in some ways, it demanded a lot of attention immediately because there was a lot of interest
Bret is founder, CEO, and research director of Voicebot.ai. He was named commentator of the year by the Alexa Conference in 2019 and is widely cited in media and academic research as an authority on voice assistants and AI. He is also the host of the Voicebot Podcast and editor of the Voice Insider newsletter.
2. What do you believe are the main drivers behind the shift to voice?
Magnus: Question number two. Voice is being described as the next digital revolution, the global tech giants are going all in voice as a user interface. What do you believe are the main drivers behind this shift to voice?
Bret: There’s several but nobody wants to loose out, and they particularly don’t want to loose out to a competitor in a platform shift. Platform shifts make giant companies and we’ve seen this in the past. Amazon was built based on the emergence of the web as a new digital platform, Google also was the beneficiary of that although a few years after and particular grew even faster, both those companies did after mobile came about.
Facebook became the juggernaut that it was because of the rise of mobile, a new platform. Apple also became the juggernaut we know today, really because of the mobile revolution it instigated. And what that means is that, Apple was an interesting company but not a juggernaut at all back in 2007. It had the iPod, some desktop computers, had some laptops, all viewed pretty favourably but no-one foresaw a trillion dollar company out of that, in terms of valuation.
So every time we see these platform shifts, there’s opportunities, for a new company to grab a mantle and what happens is, it can be almost absolute. So we have now a situation where, with this next platform shift, the major players were all beneficiaries of previous platform shifts. They know what can happen when you can displace the existing industry, the existing giants. You know Microsoft got displaced by the web, although back again sort of reinvented themselves, but for many years struggled as a result of the web. Other companies that were big on the web got displaced by mobile and had to watch on the sidelines as Apple, Samsung and Google had services particularly well suited to mobile.
So if we put all this together we don’t just have the situation where people are looking at opportunity, they’re looking at defending their position. If you looked at Facebook when they acquired WhatsApp a few years ago, people said ”oh that’s a defensive move, they see there’s opportunity there but they’re worried that WhatsApp could be the company that would come and take away Facebook’s mantle as the most widely used service on mobile, so they purchased it.
I think we see some of these same things with voice.
First and foremost they want to defend their position, they want an opportunity to potentially expand and get into someone else’s area. And then the final thing, this is the first time we are going to see an intermediary that’s gonna always stand between the user and the content or services they are looking at. So on the web you would go directly, maybe you would use Google to find something but once you knew it you would have your bookmark and go directly. Same thing with web apps. With mobile, once you passed certification on iOS and Android you went there directly without any gatekeepers between you and the brand you are working with.
In voice you always have an intermediary of an assistant. That means that everyone who is going to be on these platforms is really a step removed. You can imagine that Amazon might not want Google determining who gets the query on where to buy something. Google might not want Amazon responding with search results that it’s dominant on, and so on.
Right now, convenience is about faster better, but in the future it’s going to be just doing it for you, and that’s even faster and even better.
And so this idea of this intermediary that will start making choices on behalf of consumers, because as these assistants get to know more about us and we setup our preferences, they’re gonna actually do things for us, and that’s the next level of convenience. Right now, convenience is about faster better, but in the future it’s going to be just doing it for you, and that’s even faster and even better. There all these different things coming together around voice as a frontend to AI which has this whole other arc of adoption going on. We are looking at the frontend of a twenty to thirty year generational platform cycle. Thats what got me excited about it and that’s why I think so many of the tech giants are focusing on it so heavily.
3. What do you see as the general benefits of implementing this technology regardless of what industry they’re in?
Magnus: Given that, us Swedes have only started taking baby steps in the voice space, what would your advice be to companies that have yet to launch a voice app or an assistant of their own, what do you see as the general benefits of implementing this technology regardless of what industry they’re in.
Bret: I’ll start with why they should consider this important and the first thing I always look at is what does consumer adoption look like? Over the past twenty-five years I’ve seen a few different tech cycles come and go. Some of which where these platform shifts that we’ve talked about some of which fizzled out.
Really good examples are AR and VR, there has been a lot of talk, VCs and tech journalists were thrilled about this, yet nothing happened. With AR and VR I think the one thing I would point to is that there just aren’t any users. It’s not a thing until there is a lot of users. So I’d say that the first piece of evidence that convinced me that something was happening with voice, was that consumer demand outstripped expectations and that’s a traditional hallmark of these platform shifts.
consumer demand outstripped expectations and that’s a traditional hallmark of these platform shifts.
So we’ve seen that with smart speaker adoption, we’ve seen it with voice search adoption, there is a number of different areas. And it ultimately this idea of the height of convenience and we’ve had this macro arc of about moving towards more and more convenient solutions and services whether its Uber or Airbnb or just your mobile app that allows you to get things done faster. We know that convenience is a big play. Spotify is another perfect example of this, put all the music in one place, you never have to buy or download you just access it when you want. And so anything that aligns with that type of trend is going to be a good thing and voice is sort of that next level. We didn’t really think that typing interface on the phone was terrible, until we had voice. For those of you that are typing all the time, try it out it’s pretty amazing, very liberating. It’s not just on the go, it’s just better.
So you miss out on the conversation plus you might undermine your reputation. Better to have a presence there and that’s where I say l people should start.
But by the way, consumer platforms are only part of the story. There is a whole other set of markets around brands themselves having voice capabilities, those can be in their mobile apps or web apps or other types of digital properties that they have where voice can just be a better way for the customer to access the product and services, to extend the value of those products and services or for you to offer new services and create different types of value for your customers. Most of the companies that I think are the most sophisticated about this, whether it’s the BBC, Bank of America, Capital 1, they’re all looking at this as a longterm play where they are adding capabilities as well as some presence on the voice assistants.
4. What are your predictions regarding voice for the next few years?
Magnus: Final question; I mentioned Im an avid listener of your podcast so I know you’re having your guests make voice related predictions for 2019 and 2020. Having amassed all this combined wisdom from your guests, could you share your predictions regarding voice for the next few years?
Bret: This is going to be different depending on where you are in the world. In the Nordics, we are probably talking about more presence, the idea of making sure you are available, learning about what you can do. Generally speaking on the most important trend in this space, Google and Amazon through Assistant and Alexa just taught everybody how valuable it is to have an assistant.
This idea of custom assistants, by the brands to enable a more robust customer interaction is I think the most important trend going forward. I would say in most places you don’t have to start with that, its definitely more complex although its much more accessible than it was a couple of years ago and the cost curve is coming down quickly. But I think the idea of voice being added to mobile apps is probably the most important thing were going to see over the next two years, because that’s really the next level of interaction that people are looking for. We already have some use cases in the home with smart speakers that work really well, Im sure we’ll see some new ones that people haven’t conceived of yet, we’ve seen it work well with IoT and the ”smart home” which has been a nice driver. But I think that will lead to more incremental gains whereas we’re gonna see when we move in to mobile apps we are going to see a lot more significant gains on what the brands can do with voice now that they have this new experience capability in their repertoar.
We are going to see consumers starting to expect that, as a baseline experience
We are going to see consumers starting to expect that, as a baseline experience. Take Face-ID, that was a cool thing to add to your app a couple of years ago, if you don’t have that today and force people to login with their thumbs or email adress, peoples reaction is like ”what is this, 2014?”.
I think we’re going to see the same thing with voice over the next couple of years, people will expect some sort of assistant concierge that you can speak to and interact with in mobile apps to make it a better experience for them.
Magnus: Once again, big thanks Bret, thanks for joining us, see you on LinkedIn and on the Voicebot podcast.
Bret: Thanks Magnus I really appreciate it.