Will an enhanced Alexa draw Apple into the generative AI ring?

Thanks to the AI boom, the competitive landscape of voice assistants may be changing.
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Hannah Minn

· 5 min read

In a Q1 earnings call in April, Amazon CEO Andy Jassy hinted at an overlap between the ongoing chatbot-AI search race and the company’s legacy product, Alexa.

“We’ve had a large language model underneath [Alexa] but we’re building one that’s much larger and much more generalized and capable,” Jassy told investors. “I think that’s going to really rapidly accelerate our vision of becoming the world’s best personal assistant.”

Alexa isn’t Amazon’s only generative AI play: Jassy’s comments, which came just six months after the company announced wide-scale layoffs, were followed by reports of leaked documents describing plans for a ChatGPT-esque Alexa reboot, plus a conversational search for its online store.

Rival voice-assistant maker Google is looking to get ahead in the field of generative AI.

In an emailed statement, Duke Dukellis, director of product management for Google Assistant, said that Google will “continue working closely with third-party developers and device makers as well to build the Assistant directly into Pixel phones, buds, watches, and other devices.” (Separately, the company is reportedly cutting back funding for Google Assistant developers.)

The dark horse of voice assistants, one that hasn’t had any significant changes since its release in 2011, may finally get a chance to shine. Amazon’s apparent moves toward a more capable Alexa could spur some long-awaited updates to Siri (of “here’s what I found on the web” fame), according to Insider Intelligence Analyst Jacob Bourne.

“It’s not really a question of getting these assistants into more consumer hands; it’s more about actually getting consumers to use them,” Bourne said. “If Amazon’s going to see some success with this, then that really could almost force Apple’s hand.”

Not smart, but not forgotten

Carolina Milanesi, president and principal analyst at consumer tech research firm Creative Strategies, said part of what could be holding voice assistants back while LLMs rack up headlines is consumer understanding of the tech.

“Consumers, at the very beginning, got used to certain things, and they understood what the assistant could do well and what the assistant couldn’t do, and they didn’t actually try [to learn about new capabilities],” she said. “Ten years in, we are still asking about timers and weather.”

An estimated 45.5% of the US population will use a voice assistant by 2026, according to Insider Intelligence. Success in the field is often more about devices than the assistant itself, which means Google and Apple, with smartphones in millions of pockets, have had “an edge,” Bourne said.

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If Amazon’s attempts to make Alexa more “conversational” are successful, it could lead to higher engagement; "there could be a threat there,” he added. “They might entice users to engage with Alexa more than Siri. That is a possibility if its capabilities are significantly higher than Siri.”

Aaron Rubenson, VP of Alexa, said that Amazon’s work on large language models will “add more general-purpose capabilities,” and pointed to Alexa’s expansion beyond the home, into vehicles and earbuds. Amazon might not have an Alexa-enabled smartphone, but engagement with Alexa was up 35% in 2022, Rubenson said. And its expansive ecosystem of content and commerce is part of what helps set Alexa apart from other voice assistants, he added.

“You probably have to go back to the moment when we first launched Alexa to find a time when AI and voice assistants were as much a part of the cultural zeitgeist as we’re seeing today,” he said. “We view that as validation.”

Apple didn’t respond to Tech Brew’s request for comment by publication time.

Apple’s winning hand?

Apple, which doesn’t have an obvious stake in online search and remains neutral in the AI horse race seems to have gone all-in on mixed reality with the debut of its Vision Pro headset at its Worldwide Developers Conference.

Apple may find itself better suited to the next “wave” of AI mania, according to Tobias Dengel, president of digital experience firm WillowTree and author of The Sound of the Future: The Coming Age of Voice Technology.

“Voice is a crucial component for all VR and metaverse experiences—simply put, without advanced voice control, VR wouldn’t be possible,” Dengel said. “It’s evident that VR/AR is a major initiative for Apple, and I anticipate that voice will be a significant research focus for them. As a result, we will likely see further advancements to Siri.”

The roles of the major voice-assistant players aren’t ripe for an apples-to-apples comparison, Milanesi said. “Alexa was born out of the lack of a presence in a phone, and voice became that interaction [with Amazon],” she said. “Their business model is different.”

Bourne said the advent of ChatGPT is poised to change that dynamic—a snowball that potentially starts with an updated Alexa: “If this Alexa enhancement is successful, will that put more pressure on Apple to take some similar action with Siri? I think the answer is yes.”

Keep up with the innovative tech transforming business

Tech Brew keeps business leaders up-to-date on the latest innovations, automation advances, policy shifts, and more, so they can make informed decisions about tech.