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Despite the media hoopla surrounding a recent public demonstration of Viv — a work-in-progress, artificial intelligence personal assistant from the creator of Siri, this potential “intelligent interface for everything” may be overrun before it even launches.
Amazon, Facebook and Google have built intelligent assistants, and an entire ecosystem of bots is forming to usher in a new era of messaging. In fact the intelligence assistance market has been on a tear since 2010 – the year Apple bought Siri for $200 million.
Viv is the brainchild of Dag Kittlaus, who as CEO and cofounder of Viv Labs has re-assembled his former company’s leadership including Adam Cheyer and Chris Brigham, who reprise the respective VP of Engineering and Chief Architect roles they held at Siri.
Viv Labs isn’t blind to the looming competition. Kittlaus has acknowledged that “pretty much every major technology company is now investing billions of dollars in the intelligent-assistant space,” and that his startup is competing against all of those companies in “a race for the single interface for the user.”
Ironically, what cemented Siri’s position in the then nascent intelligent assistance market was ubiquity: getting onto the iPhone. Now, gaining the same ubiquity may prove to be Viv’s biggest challenge, and it just might need help from an Amazon or Apple (again).
You can construct the best intelligent assistant in the world, but if it’s not easily available to users, it won’t became pervasive. “The issue is, while we call these products ‘AI,’ they really are user interfaces. Typically that is a critical, included component to any commercial platform, and that means the platform owner is effectively your primary competitor,” said Rob Enderle, principal analyst at the Enderle Group. “The user interface is what the user touches and it represents most of the user experience, so it seems unlikely, unless they bundle this with a platform they have some control over, or sell it to a platform owner like they did with Siri, that they’ll be successful.”
The problem, of course, is that Viv’s competitors already have sizable platforms. Just look at how Amazon has blasted Alexa out of the gates, thanks to its established brand, offering SDKs for developers to add “skills” to Alexa’s library and to integrate Alexa into their products, and financially backing companies through its $100 million Alexa Fund. The results are already being seen, from an Alexa-powered smartwatch that’s being offered by a third-party company to a deal that will put Alexa into a multifunction kitchen device from France to individuals “hacking” connectivity between products on their own, such as a Tesla owner enabling some remote control over his car via Amazon Echo.
Interestingly, Kittlaus may have a different strategy to achieve ubiquity. The pre-Apple Siri was intended to connect multiple services seamlessly, and was reportedly able to access more than 40 third-party services in an early demo. But after Apple bought the voice assistant, the company took out those connections. That action, and the lack of an API for outside developers to use as a link from their products and services to Siri, helped keep it locked inside an iPhone instead of becoming a powerful, practical user interface to the Internet. (It also drove a number of the Siri team—Kittlaus among them—to start up Viv Labs.)
Pursuing this center of the universe path to ubiquity is audacious. “What Viv has spent a lot of time and money on is perfecting this third-party ecosystem,” said Kittlaus. “We think this is going to be the crucial thing that takes it from today’s version—that each do something like 20, 30 different things, to doing hundred and thousands and tens of thousands of things.”
Viv Labs raised $12.5 million in early 2015 and $7.5 million this past October, on top of a reported $10 million it raised in an earlier Series A round—which may provide enough cash to build a powerful AI tool independently. Kittlaus stated after his demo that there had already been acquisition offers for Viv, but that he turned them down—perhaps to save Viv from Siri’s single platform fate, and to have a shot at true ubiquity.
Here’s Kittlaus’s demo of Viv:
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