Usually the central theme of CES emerges as a tech trend (VR!   3D!  IoT!  Smart!) but occasionally a single product or platform dominates.   This year, Amazon’s Alexa was the star of CES.

Alexa showed up in two ways.   First, Alexa was integrated directly into a variety of devices.  In these cases the 3rd party device replaces an Amazon Echo and talks to Amazon’s cloud assistant.   Examples include a Lenovo smart speaker, an LG refrigerator (with an extended command set presumably enabled by the Skills platform), Whirlpool appliances, a Mattel baby monitor, Ford and Volkswagen cars, several Android smartphones (poke at Google),  4 brands of audio speakers, and several robots.

A second, much broader integration story is the many, many devices that can be conrolled by the Alexa service.   This is a much easier integration; a control hub or device simply accepts commands from Alexa’s cloud.    I suspect this was everywhere, and will grow rapidly.

This level of momentum shows a real, defensible lead over competing voice assistants from Google and Microsoft, who were reportedly nowhere to be seen.   This isn’t one or two highly paid “deals” to get a third party device into market, it’s organic adoption by manufacturers who believe they will sell more devices if they include Alexa.

Amazon has done a number of things very well:

  • Led with a lighthouse device with real marketing and distribution muscle.   The Echo line has really shown off what’s possible, and drawn attention in a way a “cloud digital assistant” never could.   It also sets a bar that 3rd parties must meet or exceed.
  • Opened up extensibility to 3rd parties in a smart and simple way.     Writing a skill is easy.   Adding Alexa to a smart device is easy.   Controlling home devices is easier.

Their success is breathtaking considering their starting position.   They don’t own a PC or mobile platform with a billion users.   They haven’t been in the speech recognition business for 20 years.   They don’t own users’ email, calendar, or other services ecosystems.  But through strategic finesse and amazing execution, they’ve made rapid traction.

The danger for the competition is that Alexa kicks off a self-sustaining “virtuous cycle” where a lead turns into more ecosystem which makes the product better so the lead grows.   There’s lots of reason to think Google or Microsoft may be able to build a better product, but history is full of examples of nominally superior products losing out due to momentum – OS/2, Betamax, etc….

There’s another virtuous (or vicious, depending on which company you work for!) cycle:   It’s great to have lots of Ph.D.’s and algorithms, but assistants get better primarily based on how much data they are fed.  Alexa is rapidly gaining users and engagement, and so Amazon is getting access to vast amounts of usage data to tune and grow it’s capabilities and scenarios.   It’s features, speech recognition and capabilities will thus grow, making Alexa a better/more attractive product that attracts more users and engagement.

I’d temper this with one point; Alexa is still in the hands of a limited number of users (but Amazon is talking about them, a sure sign it’s going well).   These 3rd party devices have the potential to accelerate this trend, but it’s safe to say Alexa is on perhaps 10s of millions of devices, not the hundreds of millions or billions of users represented by Windows, Android, and iOS.   The other assistants haven’t  managed to inject their assistant very successfully into those ecosystems, but they will surely continue to try.