Large platform companies like Amazon, Apple, Google, Samsung, and Microsoft want to provide the operating system for our lives, and they will fight hard in 2017 to establish their foothold in the emerging technologies we will likely come to rely on in the future.
Who will succeed? Those with the most complete product offerings have an advantage. Since people like to buy products that play well with the other products they already own, a platform company risks losing customers by not having a product in a hot category. These large companies already have an advantage over smaller companies due to their massive R&D budgets and their ability to hire the best people to build the stuff we want now and to anticipate the technology we’ll want in the future. And if a hot product is developed by some ambitious startup, these giants can easily swoop in and acquire both the product and the people who created it.
These categories, while not new, will be the front lines of the platform wars in 2017.
Amazon brilliantly hit upon a whole new product category with its Echo home personal assistant device. While other platform companies like Google and Apple were limiting their respective personal assistants to smartphones, Amazon saw that people wanted a personal assistant that stood on the countertop, could hear and understand voices in the room very well, and contained a speaker that actually sounded good.
Google has since created a competing device called Google Home, and there is plenty of speculation that Apple and Microsoft have something in the works as well. Amazon wisely opened up its personal assistant (called Alexa) to third-party developers, and thousands of them are now creating new "skills" for the home assistant. This trend will continue to escalate throughout 2017, and we will soon begin to see a new wave of skills that are more useful and easier to call up at your command.
As more personal assistant devices find their way into homes in 2017, the platform companies that sell them will increasingly compete to get developers to create better and better skills for the devices. And the platform companies themselves will try to integrate more of their own services through the devices. For instance, Amazon might offer more useful shopping services through the Echo, while Google will try to offer new search and productivity services.
Home assistant devices are just one vehicle for the natural language assistants of the platform companies. Assistants like Apple’s Siri, Google’s Assistant, Microsoft’s Cortana, and Amazon’s Alexa will begin showing up in new places, and in more useful ways, in the coming year. (Samsung has something called S Voice, but it this year acquired the company that developed Siri, so we may be seeing a new assistant technology from the company in the next year).
The platform companies are already investing heavily in the research and development that will make these assistants better listeners and more suited to completing tasks. Natural language assistants must understand our words, but also the meaning and intent behind them. That first part is easier than the second: Microsoft said in October that its Cortana assistant can now understand language roughly as well as a human transcriptionist.
The problem of teaching assistants to learn more about the user (identity, preferences, habits) is harder, but assistants will show improvement in this area in the coming year. Some will begin learning about the emotion expressed in the user’s comments and commands, which is harder still. They'll begin to display what seems like "common sense," which will enable them to communicate and interpret commands and requests in a more natural (and accurate) way.
And assistants will become more knowledgable about more things. They’ll be harder to stump when asking random questions that you might normally use a search engine to answer. They’ll say "I can’t help you with that" less often.
But assistants are in general not ready to learn in an open-ended, autonomous way; rather, they're being taught to learn in a highly structured way within well-defined contexts. An assistant, for example, may be tasked with learning what it can about a user’s habits based on calendar usage.
Assistants are a prime example of a product that is increasingly linked to other products and services offered by the platform. They’re increasingly the thing we’ll use to call up all kinds of data and services, and they’ll show up in more and more contexts. If a consumer sees one assistant as clearly better than others, they might be very tempted to adopt the services the assistant is able to call up.
Automakers have been building platform companies’ infotainment systems into new models for some time, but the integration will soon go much deeper, and it will heat up the competition once again.
Google and Apple each have a platforms (Android Auto and CarPlay, respectively) for extending the set of apps and services (messaging, music, navigation, phone calls, etc.) in Android and iOS to the car. They’re generally regarded as superior to the stock infotainment systems in cars.
But now the platform war for the car extends way beyond the dashboard. Google, for example (and very likely Apple, too) has built a software central nervous system for the car, an operating system that will control the semi-autonomous or autonomous operation of the vehicle. Google may have first intended to sell an autonomous vehicle, but the company refocused efforts on creating the software brains for the vehicles, which could be used in the vehicles of more traditional car companies. Apple has very likely taken the same path.
Google recently formed a new company called Waymo under the Alphabet parent company to market its auto software. Fiat Chrysler will be the first partner to use the system in its vehicles; it said in may it will first use it in 100 of its minivans.
Apple has never formally announced its "Project Titan," but Uber, Tesla, and various automakers are furiously developing self-driving systems. And other platform players like Samsung may eventually jump into the fray.
Virtual reality and augmented reality products and experiences are new to many consumers, and it’s yet to be seen how popular the technology will be.
Virtual reality, at least in the consumer space, may be the more mature technology. VR headsets like Oculus Rift and HTC Vive cover close out the outside world and create a 360-degree 3D world for the user. Companies like Facebook’s Oculus, Google, and HTC are already well down the road with the development of VR headsets and will continue to refine the technology during 2017. A growing number of phone makers are readying their devices to power the VR experiences in headsets based in Google’s new Daydream platform.
Apple has so far stayed out of the virtual reality space. This may be because the company is more interested in augmented reality, as CEO Tim Cook has suggested in his comments. Augmented reality superimposes digital data and images over the real world as seen through the camera lens on a mobile device or headset.
Microsoft’s HoloLens AR headset has been available to developers (and, technically, anyone else) for some time now, but augmented reality arguably had its coming out in 2016 with the Pokemon Go phenomenon in July. But that app requires viewing the overlaid content on the screen of a mobile device, which can be a clunky experience. The same type of experience is being used by toy makers to overlay digital imagery over dolls and action figures to make the play more interesting and to sell add-on products (accessories, media, etc.).
Perhaps the biggest name in the consumer AR space is Florida-based Magic Leap, which says it has a new kind of headset lens to create sharper digital imagery. The company’s investors have put more than a billion dollars behind the product, but a 2017 release looks less and less likely. Two sources in the AR space have told me that if Apple releases some kind of AR product, it won’t be until 2018. So 2017 may be more of a warmup year for AR. If the technology captures the imaginations of consumers, the platform war may ensue in 2018 and 2019.
I saved this one for last because AI is now finding its way into many of the products and services sold by the platforms. Personal assistants (like Siri or Alexa) may be the first context in which many people encounter a conversational AI, but the technology will begin showing up in lots of different contexts across the platform in the coming years.
Google and Apple already use AI in photo apps to automatically identify and tag images. Apple uses the same technology in the iPhone camera to recognize objects in the frame, and make adjustments accordingly. Microsoft, Google, and Apple are using AI in bots that can act as customer service reps on behalf of businesses.
Eventually, more advanced versions of the neural networks we see today will be used as the means of processing virtually all kinds of complex data. Where today’s AI needs lots of human training, the technology will become increasingly able to learn on its own. We’ll eventually stop thinking about computers as input/output if-this-then-that machines, and more like huge systems arranged like the neurons in the human brain. They'll process data more like the brain does.
We’re also in the early stages of a shift toward voice interactions with computers and applications. In the next year we may see some leaps forward in the machines’ ability not only to understand our words but also understand the real intent behind the words. We'll increasingly be able to speak commands to the devices in our lives. We'll tap screens less.
The good news in all this is that as these big, well-monied companies battle it out, specific products naturally get better, and whole platforms get more complete. Today, no one company can provide everything we need throughout the day. This may become less true as the major platforms increasingly extend new products and services into our work, home, entertainment, and personal lives.