Smart Speakers and ‘The Art of War’

Sun Tzu was a Chinese general and military theorist living in the 6th century B.C. He was the author of The Art of War, a treatise on military strategy and tactics. In addition to its profound military importance, his work has influenced many other competitive enterprises. I imagine that business executives are studying Sun Tzu right now, as they plan for one of the greatest corporate wars of all time.

“The art of war is of vital importance to the State. It is a matter of life and death, a road either to safety or to ruin.”
The coming war, already building in intensity, is the war of the smart speakers. Who could have guessed that loudspeakers, such a sedentary technology, would suddenly become weaponized? Of course, it’s not the magnets and voice coils that are in contention; it’s their newfound intelligence. And it is vital that companies win that war or at least occupy some of the disputed territory. How important? It’s expected that smart speakers will be smartphones all over again.

“If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles.”
Sales of smart speakers were a paltry $360 million in 2015. That’s hardly enough for a company to remodel the restrooms in their headquarters. By 2021, the smart speaker market is expected to be $3.5 billion. That’s a respectable figure, but it’s chump change compared with the real rewards at stake. Imagine that you had a device in every home that searched the internet, played music, made phone calls, read e-mail, bought goods and services, controlled other smart devices, etc. Leveraging that data flow and data-mining it and selling the information would bring you untold billions.

“Whoever is first in the field and awaits the coming of the enemy will be fresh for the fight; whoever is second in the field and has to hasten to battle will arrive exhausted.”
Amazon was the first company to score major victories. Its Alexa products introduced smart speaker technology to the public; thanks to its head start, Amazon owns 70 percent of the smart speaker market. Alexa is integral to Amazon’s strategy of enlisting you into the army of Amazon Prime. Apple, Microsoft, and Google responded with their own smart speakers. And outside the home and office, the battle is moving to cars. Talk to your new BMW, and Alexa will respond.

“On the ground of intersecting highways, join hands with your allies.”
The four combatants are all natural enemies in different respects. But Amazon and Microsoft don’t really go head to head in most of their endeavors. Thus, they agreed to join forces for this battle. By the time you read this, Alexa and Cortana will be linked; you can ask one to access the other. Over time, as the integration strengthens, the systems will automatically route your request to whichever assistant is most competent to respond. This alliance makes complete sense; Alexa occupies millions of homes, and Cortana lives in millions of PCs via Windows 10, while Google and Apple own phone platforms and, as such, occupy the high ground. Apple, in particular, is very protective of its high ground. Amazon and Microsoft failed in the phone market and must do everything they can, including collaboration that effectively places two assistants in each hardware device, to compete against the powerful phone assistants.

“He will win who, prepared himself, waits to take the enemy unprepared.”
I have all four assistants arranged strategically around my house. In turn, I asked them if they knew who authored The Art of War. Each of them promptly responded that it was Sun Tzu. Clearly, they’ve been preparing for a fight.