Nov 29, 2022 - Technology

Good night, Alexa: Voice assistants face deep cuts

Illustration of an Amazon Echo with a red "no" symbol around the top

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

A decade after voice assistant technology captured the world's imagination, Alexa and Siri appear to be on the wane.

Why it matters: Alexa's rise and fall shows that for every winner in the tech industry's neverending game of "dominate the next platform," there are multiple money-incinerating losers.

Driving the news: Amid tech’s biggest slump in two decades, companies are tightening their belts and decreasing investments in secondary devices and voice assistants.

  • Earlier this month, a report from Insider detailed that Amazon workers had determined that Alexa was a “colossal failure of imagination” and “wasted opportunity.” Insider reports its division was on track to lose up to $10 billion in 2022.
  • This was followed by news of Amazon’s biggest layoffs to date, with Alexa's team reportedly among those heavily affected by the cuts.
  • A month ago, Google reportedly decided to scale back development and support for its Google Assistant.

Flashback: When Siri first hit the market with the iPhone 4S in 2011, it was championed as “probably one of the most novel applications Apple has ever produced.”

  • Amazon released the first Echo featuring Alexa in 2014 and it was a hit, selling 5 million devices in the first two years. Investments followed, and in 2018, Amazon said it had over 10,000 engineers working on Alexa and Echo products.
  • One high-water mark for the cultural optimism about the technology was "Her," the 2013 movie whose main character falls in love with his voice assistant.

Between the lines: Though voice assistants have become a literal fixture in millions of homes, they have not delivered on their creators' revenue targets.

  • Amazon’s goal with Alexa was not to make money selling the devices but to give users an even easier way of ordering from the retail giant.
  • Insider reports that a few years into Alexa’s life, Amazon saw billion of interactions a week, but most of them were trivial usages that did not open money-making opportunities.
  • “We kept waiting, waiting, waiting for a huge percentage of consumers to say, ‘I bought a pizza’ [on my Echo],” Consumer Intelligence Research Partners cofounder Michael Levin told Fast Company. “It never materialized. People do not buy stuff, by and large.”

What they're saying: Amazon points to internal statistics showing a 30% increase in Alexa interactions over the past year and says it's "still in the earliest days of what Alexa will become."

  • "The fact is, Alexa has changed how people interact with technology, and we are observing incredible momentum with our customers. We are as committed as ever to Alexa, and will continue to invest heavily in it," an Amazon spokesperson told Axios.

Though voice assistants have slowly evolved to understand more complex commands, research shows that most people use them for simpler tasks like checking the weather or making a call.

  • The tech has also become something of a punchline as jokes center on Alexa or Siri mishearing a user or providing unhelpful information.
  • Meanwhile, a February report from Voicebot Research showed that fewer Americans used voice assistants in 2021 compared with 2020.
  • Smaller efforts from big companies, like Microsoft’s Cortana and Samsung’s Bixby, have also seemingly failed to gain traction in the market.

The intrigue: Voice assistants have also faced growing concerns over consumer privacy.

  • A 2020 survey from DataGrail found that over 82% of respondents had concerns about monitoring or data collection from phone microphones, laptop webcams, home devices like Amazon Echo, or devices with location tracking.
  • In 2019, Bloomberg reported that Amazon had a team of thousands who listened to conversations recorded through Alexa in efforts to improve the service.
  • Also in 2019, The Guardian reported that some private conversations and audio recorded by Siri was being shared by Apple with contractors.

Yes, but: Voice assistants have proven to have a wide range of applications and champions, even if not in the ways Amazon and Apple originally planned.

  • Voice input has been hugely important in providing greater tech accessibility, offering those with limited vision, motor impairments or other challenges a smoother way to interact with devices.
  • The world of “Internet of Things” products has produced an ecosystem of devices that can be controlled with users’ voices.

Voice has also proven to be an invaluable secondary input when users' hands are otherwise busy.

  • Using voice commands has increasingly allowed drivers to keep their hands on steering wheels. And a 2016 study showed that 62% of iPhone users used Siri in the car.
  • Additionally, innovations in wearables like VR headsets and AR glasses have also leaned on voice inputs so users don't have to keep touching their heads or carry around awkward controllers.

What's next: Voice could see a revival if the dreams of metaverse pioneers and AR innovators come true.

Go deeper