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The world of virtual assistants is about to get even more interesting. Voice-recognition and voice-processing technologies are advancing quickly, bringing Star Trek-worthy functionality.

Voice-controlled virtual assistants can now be found in myriad devices, including mobile phones, PCs, automobiles, even refrigerators. The race is on to create the perfect virtual-assistant platform, one that can appear in, and communicate with, as many devices as possible.

Top-tier competitors including Apple, Amazon, Google and Microsoft are at the front of the pack. It’s obvious that this particular race is an important one.

To be fair, virtual assistants are nothing new: iPhone users have been able to say, “Hey, Siri…” since October 2011, when a disembodied female voice first appeared on the iPhone 4s. (The “s” in the product name stood for Siri.)

But what’s different now is dramatically heightened competition. The major players are trying to grab as many users as they can, then lock them into monogamous relationships with Siri, Alexa, Cortana or …Google.

Alexa everywhere?

Apple’s Siri may have been first to market, but it looks as though Amazon’s Alexa could be first to achieve a state of ubiquity. That’s because Amazon has opened the doors to third-party integration about as wide as they can go.

Consumers can now find Alexa integration in a wide range of third-party software, mobile devices (including Amazon’s own hardware), home-theater equipment, and popular IoT products such as Philips’ Hue smart-lighting systems. LG has already promised an array of home appliances featuring Alexa integration, starting with its latest smart refrigerator.

These kinds of deals could be a game-changer for Amazon, especially in light of its recent $13.7 billion acquisition of Whole Foods. Amazon knows that the more Alexa-enabled devices a consumer owns, the more likely they are to buy even more Alexa-enabled devices.

Apple's approach

While Amazon is trying to be all things to all people, Apple is concentrating on being one great thing to a select group of people. This has been Apple’s modus operandi all along, and it has made the company an awful lot of money.

Apple iPhone with Siri

Apple users have been able to say, “Hey, Siri…” since late 2011.

Apple prides itself on cultivating a closed ecosystem. Siri is available only on Apple-manufactured devices, including the company’s computers, smartphones, tablets and IoT devices such as the new HomePod.

Also, Siri integration can be achieved only through Apple’s HomeKit — a notoriously difficult hoop to jump though. This lets Apple maintain tight quality control.

It also lets Apple cultivate a particularly high-end user experience. Siri may not offer the most options, but what she does, she does very well.

In the coming months, Amazon, Google and Microsoft may discover once again that ubiquity can come at a high cost. By offering an open API that enables nearly any manufacturer to connect to their hard-won voice-activated technology, they’ve found a great way to increase market share.

Unfortunately, ubiquity can also be a powerful way to dilute quality, alienate customers and erode consumer confidence. That’s a price that Apple, with its closed policy, won’t have to pay.

Watch (and listen to) this space — the best is yet to come.


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