I was about to plug my new Google Home Mini into the wall outlet this weekend when I froze. What kind of a commitment was I about to make? Google had handed out freebies of its puck-sized, fabric-coated gizmo at a press event last week. It seemed like a good, low-risk opportunity to dip my toes in the home voice-assistant waters. Time to live it up.
But I wasn’t just powering up a device. I was making a fateful platform choice. Once I started granting Google’s artificial intelligence-driven network access to the minutiae of my life—what time I wake up, how I commute to work, what music I like to relax to, who I call, what food I order, and all of the other details that a voice assistant hoovers up in order to make itself useful to you—I would be placing a long-term bet.
If I want to switch assistants down the line, sure, I can just go out and buy another device. But that investment of time and personal data isn’t so easy to replace. Putting all that energy into the Google Assistant—whether actively, by setting presets and training the program, or passively, by letting it observe my behavior—meant I wasn’t putting it into Amazon’s Alexa or Apple’s Siri. You can switch hardware, but you can’t just say, “Hey, Google! Tell Alexa everything you know about me.”
So here we go again. Windows or Mac? iPhone or Android? Alexa or Siri or Google? The march of tech keeps presenting us with these dilemmas. When an innovation is fresh, the decisions we make haphazardly end up governing market share for decades. Companies actively encourage this early selection with the same game plan: Get us to choose early, before it’s entirely clear which option is the best (or best for us), and then make it inconvenient for us to switch. For years, moving from Windows to Mac or vice versa meant abandoning piles of data in incompatible formats. Until the US government stepped in and required carriers to make our personal cell numbers portable, smartphone lock-in was even more draconian—enforced not only by operating system brand but also by cell-provider rules.
The companies each hope to control a winner-take-all market—and one might. But each time a business builds an incompatible proprietary fortress, it opens the door for someone else to come along and introduce a universal standard. If a company wins, it ends up like Facebook. But if it loses, it winds up like AOL, Compuserve, and Prodigy, outflanked by the web.
It’s still unclear how the vocal assistant turf battle will settle, but already we’re encouraged to lock down our pick. Each offering has its pros and cons. Alexa, Amazon’s offering—and the market leader by a big margin—offers tons of “skills” that let it communicate with other apps to accomplish tasks for you. Though the Google Assistant offers fewer tricks, it is thoroughly integrated with all the data Google has stored from your email, calendar, Google Maps, and the numerous other places the candy-colored giant has affixed its sensors to your digital life. Also, Google has a better record than the competition of giving users access to their data—if you use the Assistant, Google will show you a record of every voice interaction you’ve had with it.
But each option comes with a cost. Amazon is primarily a store, so its likely long-term plan is to use Alexa to sell you more stuff. Google is primarily an advertising company, so somewhere down the line you can bet it will find ways for its Assistant to present you with “sponsored” suggestions. Siri, Apple’s pioneering but now lagging entrant in this market, will soon enter the home with Apple’s new HomePod device. As a company that makes its profits mostly by selling hardware, Apple has often been more protective of its users’ privacy than the competition. Before you’re done weighing all these factors, you may need to hire a consultant to help you make a choice. (Or just let an AI do it for you.)
Or maybe you won’t have to choose. Sonos, the leader in great-sounding wireless home music systems, just released a voice-activated speaker that promises to be platform-agnostic. You can use Alexa with it today; by next year, Google and Siri will work on it, too. But Sonos’s Switzerland gambit doesn’t really help us with personal data lock-in. If you use Alexa and then realize you’d rather switch to Google Assistant, Sonos will comply. But it will do nothing to help you transport the knowledge you’ve shared with Alexa over to your new platform.
Right now, all these assistants behave like selfish employees who think they can protect their jobs by holding vital expertise or passwords close to their chests. Eventually (and in the European Union, much sooner than that), the data that runs the voice assistant business is going to have to be standardized. Every new technology gets commoditized eventually, and Alexa and her friends will ultimately speak the same language, whether it’s because governments legislate it, monopolies force it, or customers demand it. Amazon, Google, and Apple could jump start that by agreeing now on a universal format for all the personal information needed to train an assistant. Just as we can move our cell phone numbers from carrier to carrier today, we should be able to move our personal profiles from platform to platform with a simple file transfer.
In the meantime, I think I’ll keep experimenting with the Google Assistant. But each time I share a bit of my life with it, I’m going to be wondering: Am I going to have to do this whole thing over again someday with somebody else?