Voice has the promise to be the next disruption, upending massive, established business models and putting search, commerce, messaging, and navigation up for grabs again. But a walled garden mentality could stifle that disruption.
Even over its relatively short history, we see a pattern of behavior on the Internet: some innovator creates a marketplace for consumers, helping to organize information (Yahoo and AOL in their first iterations), commerce (Amazon), a place to keep in touch with our friends (Facebook), and they create huge consumer value in bringing us together, providing us with tools that make it easy to navigate, buy, message, etc. But as the audience grows, there is always a slide away from an open marketplace toward a walled garden, with the marketplace operators initially becoming toll takers and moving toward ever greater control (and monetization) of their users’ experience, and more recently, their data.
Mobile carriers in the US tried to erect walled gardens around their users in the 1.0 version of mobile content — the carriers thought they had captive users and captive vendors, and so created closed platforms that forced their subscribers to buy content from them. Predictably, monopoly providers offered narrow product offerings at high prices and squeezed their vendors so hard that there was no free cash flow for innovation. Mobile content stagnated, as the carriers failed to cultivate fertile ecosystems in which vendors could make money and in which consumers had a growing variety of new and interesting content. When the iPhone came along (thankfully Steve Jobs could wave his magic wand over the guys at AT&T), consumers could finally use their phones to get to the Internet for the content they wanted, and the carriers went back to being dumb pipes.
Will voice platforms become walled gardens?
If you want to enable your users to reach you through Alexa, you have to create a Skill. Then you have to train your users to invoke your Skill using a precise syntax. Likewise Google Assistant. For Siri, your business has to fit into one of the handful of domains that SiriKit recognizes. There’s a reason we refer to them as voice platforms — their owners are in control.
Initially, there are good QA reasons for this, making sure we get a good user experience. But pretty quickly, the walls will become constraints on who can be included in the garden (will Amazon and Facebook play nice together?), and ultimately, what will be the tax that must be paid in order to offer services in the garden. As users, this results in less openness, fewer choices, and constraints on our ability to quickly and easily do what we want to do, which typically includes using different services from all of the different platform providers (does Tencent really think that if you block people from Alipay inside WeChat that users will stop using Alipay?)
The carriers’ experience should be a cautionary tale — walled gardens, with their limited choices and monopolist pricing are bad for consumers; the Internet is a place of unlimited choice, the world of mobile apps is vast and diverse, again allowing for broad consumer choice — this is what we expect, and if our horizons are constrained by a platform’s policies, we’ll abandon it. The carriers fumbled Mobile Content 1.0; their walled gardens never met their promise to become massive businesses, and today they don’t even exist.
Voice interfaces should be our gateway to everything we want to do, whether it’s in Alexa, in our mobile apps, or in our connected cars or homes. So will voice platforms be these open gateways that make our lives easier, or will they be cramped walled gardens that try to make our choices for us, funneling us to a narrow selection of preferred vendors?